In this chapter from Heathcliff: The Lost Years, Heathcliff steps off a ship and makes his way to the city of London, one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the world. On his first night in the teeming city, Heathcliff catches a glimpse of a beautiful and mysterious lady he is soon to see again.
Heathcliff arrived at the port of London with money in his pockets. He was prepared to seek his fortune but he was not prepared for the overwhelming sprawl of almost a million men, women, and children that awaited him up the River Thames, on the other side of London Bridge.
Captain Fowler insisted Heathcliff accompany him to his hotel, where he believed Heathcliff might find suitable quarters during his stay in the city. Beyond the windows of their coach, the rooftops of the great metropolis stretched out for miles.
According to Captain Fowler, east of the Thames lay the enormous beehive of British manufacturing. There lay block after block of factory buildings, with men, women, and children in from the country toiling from daylight to dusk for extremely modest wages. This migration fed the growing ooze and creep of the slums. Every day, flimsy structures filled past overflowing collapsed, and shoddy new buildings sprang up on their foundations like mushrooms after a spring rain.
West of the Thames lay the sumptuous palaces and courtyards of London’s wealthy aristocrats and the city’s aspiring commercial elite. The most magnificent of these, Buckingham Palace, the captain said, was recently renovated for Queen Charlotte by her indulgent husband, King George III, the monarch who reigned over it all.
London was a city of clattering carts and carriage horses, the captain observed, home to gentlemen, scoundrels, soldiers, beggars, guildsmen, vendors, gypsies, shopkeepers, gamblers, matrons of leisure, foreigners, factory owners, sailors, prostitutes, night soil men and knaves.
“London attracts people from all over the world, many seeking to make their fortunes,” Captain Fowler observed as the coach drew up before the Metropole. “You may meet a few honest people here, but I myself greatly prefer the sea.”
The Metropole Hotel was in Covent Gardens on the edge of Drury Lane. The best of London had long ago abandoned the elegant old neighborhood, according to Captain Fowler, but he thought the Metropole perfectly situated for his brief stays in the city.
The three-story Georgian town-house retained the elegant façade of a great mansion, Heathcliff noticed, with a large handsome portico and window-frames of pink stone.
“Our establishment attracts many patrons who do appreciate good value,” sniffed the carbuncular young proprietor as he registered. “The neighborhood isn’t what it was but our monthly rates are reasonable and we do include a decent dinner.”
Heathcliff rented a room for a month. After Captain Fowler retired to his quarters, Heathcliff ventured outside to stroll down Drury Lane at dusk.
Lamp-lighters lit streetlamp after streetlamp. Small boys hawked newspapers. Carriages clattered past. Vendors with push-carts sold tarts and meat pies. A rivulet of raw sewage dribbled down one side of the street, but beneath the streetlamps the sewage shone like a tiny river of molten gold.
Over Heathcliff’s head, on sturdy metal poles extending far out over the street, banners advertised the names of shops below. Twin torches flared at the entrance to a Turkish Bath. Gentlemen walked the street, some with ladies on their arm.
Heathcliff marveled at the imposing facades of the Drury Lane entertainment palaces, and the uniformed coachmen waiting outside.
As he returned to the Metropole, women he thought prostitutes smiled at him on the street, or beckoned from doorways.
Suddenly, an urchin in ragged clothing leaped out of an alley, boldly thrust one hand into his pocket, and tugged at his pocketbook. When Heathcliff realized what the boy was about, he caught the young thief’s hand, twisted back his arm, and flung him to the cobblestones.
“Thief!” he said. “Criminal!”
The dirty little creature scrambled to its feet, spat at Heathcliff, and skittered away before Heathcliff realized it was a girl.
Just as Heathcliff returned to the Metropole, a black four-wheeled carriage stopped before the portico. A uniformed coachman jumped from the box and pulled open the door to the coach.
A dainty woman in a pale blue satin dress and matching hat stepped to the ground. Clutching a satchel, the lady lowered her head, walked up the stairs, and hurried through the front door without looking back.
Heathcliff thought the lady extremely fetching. When he stepped into the lobby of the old hotel, a hint of her exotic perfume lingered in the air.
++END OF THIS CHAPTER++
Heathcliff: The Lost Years is the untold story at the heart of Wuthering Heights. The 111-chapter historical novel is available in paperback, e-book, and as an audiobook from vendors such as Amazon, Apple, Audible.com and may be special ordered from any bookstore.