In Emily Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff disappears for three years and returns a changed man. He leaves as a penniless, beaten-down orphan with a broken heart, and returns a rich and ruthless gentleman capable of extracting a notoriously cruel revenge.
This is the first chapter of the 111-chapter historical novel, Heathcliff: The Lost Years, which tells the story of Heathcliff’s three adventurous years years away from Wuthering Heights. The story begins on a dreary day in a run-down orphanage in Liverpool.
As the house-master’s cane sailed down, the boy felt a movement in the air, as if from the wing of a small bird. Then Mr. Hatchett struck him. A wave of pain rang through his skull like a loud brass bell ringing.
“Head down,” snapped the house-master. “Keep working.”
To be hit again shocked and infuriated the boy. He didn’t deserve it. He scowled. He looked down. Only the weak lads cried, and he refused to do it. He took a deep breath, lifted up a section of rope, and began picking it apart with his small, calloused fingers.
“Dirty gypsy,” hissed a pale-skinned lad. “Serves you right.”
“Go to the Devil,” the boy replied.
Mr. Hatchett slapped the work-bench with his rattan cane.
“Attend to your work,” he said. “All of you.”
The room fell silent.
The pale-skinned lads had long ago taken a dislike to the boy’s dark skin and black, wavy hair. When the house-master was gone, they skittered about him like yapping dogs, taunting him, calling him a dirty gypsy, and claiming his gypsy parents sold him away.
For a long time, the boy could imagine no end to life in the work-house. But as he grew older, he noticed boys sold into service on ships, and boys running away.
Every morning, Mr. Hatchett unlocked the dormitory and herded the orphans into the kitchen for breakfast. After the morning meal, their tall, thin-lipped caretaker marched them into the work-room. They all took their places at the work-bench and spent the day pulling apart stiff dry ropes to make oakum. After evening prayers, the house-master marched them back into the dormitory, watched them unroll their pallets on the floor, and locked the door for the night.
The dormitory was infested with rats. Each night, the boy dreaded the sight of them multiplying out of the walls like a stream of dark, dirty water. The afternoon he dared complain about the rats, the house-master caned him so severely his shoulders rang with pain.
That night, as he tried to sleep, a rat skittered onto his pallet. He slapped it with the back of his hand. The rodent clung to his fingers. It sunk its claws into his flesh and wouldn’t let go. Terrified and frantic, the boy finally shook the hideous creature off and sent it sailing across the room.
“Mr. Hatchett!” someone wailed, but nobody came.
The boy lay awake in the crowded, foul-smelling dormitory, licking blood from the back of his hand and despising them all.
A soft rain began falling. Raindrops pattered against the window-panes like angelic voices, calling him away.
Droplets of rain kissed his face when he pushed up a small window, squeezed through, and dropped into the alley. A horse and carriage splashed past on the streets.
Without looking back, the boy scurried away from the work-house, the welts on his body drenched and soothed by the gently-falling rain.
He found no shelter on the cold, wet streets of the little seaport. At last, he saw a flash of light through an open carriage-house door.
He stepped into the doorway, dripping wet. He listened warily to the stamping and snorting of the carriage horses. When he was certain he was alone, he pulled together a pile of straw, and lay down. He fell asleep listening to water trickle down the cobblestone streets of Liverpool on its way to the sea.
For days, he scurried about the city like a homeless animal. He found scraps of food behind bakeries, butcher-shops, and inns. He stole from push-carts. When he could find no food, he begged.
One morning he put out his hand to a kindly country gentleman in a greatcoat and top hat, the sort of gentleman who sometimes threw him a penny. Old Earnshaw bent at the waist and looked him squarely in the eye. When he asked the boy a series of kindly questions, the boy blurted out all he knew of his life.
Old Earnshaw’s face visibly softened. He took the boy’s hand.
“Come with me, lad,” he said. “I shall take you home.”
The voice of Old Earnshaw quieting the dogs stirred him awake in the darkness.
The boy remembered setting off for a walk in Liverpool. When he could walk no farther, Old Earnshaw wrapped him in his greatcoat and carried him until, finally, he fell asleep.
“I’ll not hear any criticism of this,” came Old Earnshaw’s voice, as they apparently entered a house. “I’ve walked much too far and I am tired. I would not have another walk like that for the three kingdoms.”
Before he sat down, Old Earnshaw opened up his greatcoat and set the child on his feet before the hearth.
The boy rubbed his eyes and looked into the faces dancing before him in the firelight.
“I knocked on doors all over Liverpool but I could not find who owned this child. I had so little time. I thought it best to bring him home,” Old Earnshaw said.
He then turned to his wife with a kind, knowing expression. “We shall call him Heathcliff,” he said.
“The name of our lost child,” said Mrs. Earnshaw, with quavering voice. “The infant God snatched away from us the day he was born.”
“Attend to the lad, Nelly,” Old Earnshaw said.
A female servant bustled forward to take the boy’s hand.
“Heathcliff,” she said. “Come along.”
As Nelly led him away, the boy saw the Earnshaw children going through the pockets of their father’s greatcoat, looking for presents. Nelly took him into the kitchen, washed him up with soap and water, and dressed him for bed. But when she tried to put him into bed with the two Earnshaw children, both vigorously protested.
“No!” cried young Catherine. “He shall not sleep in my bed!”
“Father should not bring that terrible creature into our house,” said her older brother, Hindley. “He has no place here, Nelly.”
“I shan’t permit it!” Catherine cried, standing up on the bed in her night-gown. “No! Take him away!”
Muttering to herself, Nelly fixed the boy a place to sleep on the landing of the stairs, made him comfortable, and bid him good-night.
The boy could not sleep. He watched the fire die in the hearth. Wind whistled ominously down the chimney. The creaky old house seemed alive with frightful, popping sounds.
In the middle of the night, he heard the comforting voice of Old Earnshaw.
The sound of it drew the boy crawling quickly up the stairway, pulling his bedding behind him. He lay down outside Old Earnshaw’s bedroom door, wrapped himself in a blanket, and waited to hear his benefactor’s voice again.
++END OF CHAPTER++
David Drum’s new historical romance Heathcliff: The Lost Years is available as a papeback, e-book, or audiobook from Amazon, Apple, Audible.com and other vendors. The book may be special ordered from any bookstore.