Wuthering Heights eText - Chapter VIII

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Chapter VIII

ON THE MORNING of a fine June day must bonny little nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born. We were busy with the hay in a far-away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. “The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go: he says she's been in a consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr. Hindley: and now she has nothing to keep her, and she'll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You're to nurse it, Nelly: to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it day and night. I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”

“But is she very ill?” I asked, flinging down my rake and tying my bonnet.

“I guess she is; yet she looks bravely,” replied the girl, “and she talks as if she thought of living to see it grow a man. She's out of her head for joy, it's such a beauty! If I were her I'm certain I should not die: I should get better at the bare sight of it, in spite of Kenneth. I was fairly mad at him. Dame Archer brought the cherub down to master, in the house, and his face just began to light up, when the old croaker steps forward, and says he—‘Earnshaw, it's a blessing your wife has been spared to leave you this son. When she came, I felt convinced we shouldn't keep her long; and now, I must tell you, the winter will probably finish her. Don't take on, and fret about it too much: it can't be helped. And besides, you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass!’”

“And what did the master answer?” I inquired.

“I think he swore: but I didn't mind him, I was straining to see the bairn,” and she began again to describe it rapturously. I, as zealous as herself, hurried eagerly home to admire, on my part; though I was very sad for Hindley's sake. He had room in his heart only for two idols—his wife and himself: he doted on both, and adored one, and I couldn't conceive how he would bear the loss.

When we got to Wuthering Heights, there he stood at the front door; and, as I passed in, I asked, “how was the baby?”

“Nearly ready to run about, Nell!” he replied, putting on a cheerful smile.

“And the mistress?” I ventured to inquire; “the doctor says she's—”

“Damn the doctor!” he interrupted, reddening. “Frances is quite right: she'll be perfectly well by this time next week. Are you going up-stairs? will you tell her that I'll come, if she'll promise not to talk. I left her because she would not hold her tongue; and she must—tell her Mr. Kenneth says she must be quiet.”

I delivered this message to Mrs. Earnshaw; she seemed in flighty spirits, and replied merrily, “I hardly spoke a word, Ellen, and there he has gone out twice, crying. Well, say I promise I won't speak: but that does not bind me not to laugh at him!”

Poor soul! Till within a week of her death that gay heart never failed her; and her husband persisted doggedly, nay, furiously, in affirming her health improved every day. When Kenneth warned him that his medicines were useless at that stage of the malady, and he needn't put him to further expense by attending her, he retorted, “I know you need not—she's well—she does not want any more attendance from you! She never was in a consumption. It was a fever; and it is gone: her pulse is as slow as mine now, and her cheek as cool.”

He told his wife the same story, and she seemed to believe him; but one night, while leaning on his shoulder, in the act of saying she thought she should be able to get up to-morrow, a fit of coughing took her—a very slight one—he raised her in his arms; she put her two hands about his neck, her face changed, and she was dead.

As the girl had anticipated, the child Hareton fell wholly into my hands. Mr. Earnshaw, provided he saw him healthy and never heard him cry, was contented, as far as regarded him. For himself, he grew desperate: his sorrow was of that kind that will not lament. He neither wept nor prayed; he cursed and defied: execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation. The servants could not bear his tyrannical and evil conduct long: Joseph and I were the only two that would stay. I had not the heart to leave my charge; and besides, you know, I had been his foster-sister, and excused his behaviour more readily than a stranger would. Joseph remained to hector over tenants and labourers; and because it was his vocation to be where he had plenty of wickedness to reprove.

The master's bad ways and bad companions formed a pretty example for Catherine and Heathcliff. His treatment of the latter was enough to make a fiend of a saint. And, truly, it appeared as if the lad were possessed of something diabolical at that period. He delighted to witness Hindley degrading himself past redemption; and became daily more notable for savage sullenness and ferocity. I could not half tell what an infernal house we had. The curate dropped calling, and nobody decent came near us, at last; unless Edgar Linton's visits to Miss Cathy might be an exception. At fifteen she was the queen of the country-side; she had no peer; and she did turn out a haughty, headstrong creature! I own I did not like her, after infancy was past; and I vexed her frequently by trying to bring down her arrogance: she never took an aversion to me, though. She had a wondrous constancy to old attachments: even Heathcliff kept his hold on her affections unalterably; and young Linton, with all his superiority, found it difficult to make an equally deep impression. He was my late master: that is his portrait over the fireplace. It used to hang on one side, and his wife's on the other; but hers has been removed, or else you might see something of what she was. Can you make that out?

Mrs. Dean raised the candle, and I discerned a soft-featured face, exceedingly resembling the young lady at the Heights, but more pensive and amiable in expression. It formed a sweet picture. The long light hair curled slightly on the temples; the eyes were large and serious; the figure almost too graceful. I did not marvel how Catherine Earnshaw could forget her first friend for such an individual. I marvelled much how he, with a mind to correspond with his person, could fancy my idea of Catherine Earnshaw.

“A very agreeable portrait,” I observed to the house-keeper. “Is it like?”

“Yes,” she answered; “but he looked better when he was animated; that is his everyday countenance: he wanted spirit in general.”

Catherine had kept up her acquaintance with the Lintons since her fiveweeks' residence among them; and as she had no temptation to show her rough side in their company, and had the sense to be ashamed of being rude where she experienced such invariable courtesy, she imposed unwittingly on the old lady and gentleman by her ingenuous cordiality; gained the admiration of Isabella, and the heart and soul of her brother: acquisitions that flattered her from the first—for she was full of ambition—and led her to adopt a double character without exactly intending to deceive any one. In the place where she heard Heathcliff termed a “vulgar young ruffian,” and “worse than a she took care not to act like him; but at home she had small inclination to practise politeness that would only be laughed at, and restrain an unruly nature when it would bring her neither credit nor praise.

Mr. Edgar seldom mustered courage to visit Wuthering Heights openly. He had a terror of Earnshaw's reputation, and shrunk from encountering him; and yet he was always received with our best attempts at civility: the master himself avoided offending him, knowing why he came; and if he could not be gracious, kept out of the way. I rather think his appearance there was distasteful to Catherine; she was not artful, never played the coquette and had evidently an objection to her two friends meeting at all; for when Heathcliff expressed contempt of Linton in his presence, she could not half coincide, as she did in his absence; and when Linton evinced disgust and antipathy to Heathcliff, she dared not treat his sentiments with indifference, as if depreciation of her playmate were of scarcely any consequence to her. I've had many a laugh at her perplexities and untold troubles, which she vainly strove to hide from my mockery. That sounds ill-natured: but she was so proud it became really impossible to pity her distresses, till she should be chastened into more humility. She did bring herself, finally, to confess, and to confide in me: there was not a soul else that she might fashion into an adviser.

Mr. Hindley had gone from home one afternoon, and Heathcliff presumed to give himself a holiday on the strength of it. He had reached the age of sixteen then, I think, and without having bad features, or being deficient in intellect, he contrived to convey an impression of inward and outward repulsiveness that his present aspect retains no traces of. In the first place, he had by that time lost the benefit of his early education: continual hard work, begun soon and concluded late, had extinguished any curiosity he once possessed in pursuit of knowledge, and any love for books or learning. His childhood's sense of superiority, instilled into him by the favours of old Mr. Earnshaw, was faded away. He struggled long to keep up an equality with Catherine in her studies, and yielded with poignant though silent regret: but he yielded completely; and there was no prevailing on him to take a step in the way of moving upward, when he found he must, necessarily, sink beneath his former level. Then personal appearance sympathised with mental deterioration: he acquired a slouching gait and ignoble look; his naturally reserved disposition was exaggerated into an almost idiotic excess of unsociable moroseness; and he took a grim pleasure, apparently, in exciting the aversion rather than the esteem of his few acquaintance.

Catherine and he were constant companions still at his seasons of respite from labour; but he had ceased to express his fondness for her in words, and recoiled with angry suspicion from her girlish caresses, as if conscious there could be no gratification in lavishing such marks of affection on him. On the before-named occasion he came into the house to announce his intention of doing nothing, while I was assisting Miss Cathy to arrange her dress: she had not reckoned on his taking it into his head to be idle; and imagining she would have the whole place to herself, she managed, by some means, to inform Mr. Edgar of her brother's absence, and was then preparing to receive him.

“Cathy, are you busy this afternoon?” asked Heathcliff. “Are you going anywhere?”

“No, it is raining,” she answered.

“Why have you that silk frock on, then?” he said. “Nobody coming here, I hope?”

“Not that I know of,” stammered Miss: “but you should be in the field now, Heathcliff. It is an hour past dinner-time: I thought you were gone.”

“Hindley does not often free us from his accursed presence,” observed the boy. “I'll not work any more to-day: I'll stay with you.”

“Oh, but Joseph will tell,” she suggested; “you'd better go!”

“Joseph is loading lime on the further side of Penistone Crags; it will take him till dark, and he'll never know.”

So, saying, he lounged to the fire, and sat down. Catherine reflected an instant, with knitted brows—she found it needful to smooth the way for an intrusion. “Isabella and Edgar Linton talked of calling this afternoon,” she said, at the conclusion of a minute's silence. “As it rains, I hardly expect them; but they may come, and if they do, you run the risk of being scolded for no good.”

“Order Ellen to say you are engaged, Cathy,” he persisted; “don't turn me out for those pitiful, silly friends of yours! I'm on the point, sometimes, of complaining that they—but I'll not—”

“That they what?” cried Catherine, gazing at him with a troubled countenance. “Oh, Nelly!” she added petulantly, jerking her head away from my hands, “you've combed my hair quite out of curl! That's enough; let me alone. What are you on the point of complaining about, Heathcliff?”

“Nothing—only look at the almanack on that wall”; he pointed to a framed sheet hanging near the window, and continued, “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!” replied Catherine, in a peevish tone. “And where is the sense of that?”

“To show that I do take notice,” said Heathcliff.

“And should I always be sitting with you?” she demanded, growing more irritated. “What good do I get? What do you talk about? You might be dumb, or a baby, for anything you say to amuse me, or for anything you do, either!”

“You never told me before that I talked too little, or that you disliked my company, Cathy!” exclaimed Heathcliff, in much agitation.“

It's no company at all, when people know nothing and say nothing,” she muttered.

Her companion rose up, but he hadn't time to express his feelings further, for a horse's feet were heard on the flags, and having knocked gently, young Linton entered, his face brilliant with delight at the unexpected summons he had received. Doubtless Catherine marked the difference between her friends, as one came in and the other went out. The contrast resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly, coal country for a beautiful fertile valley; and his voice and greeting were as opposite as his aspect. He had a sweet, low manner of speaking, and pronounced his words as you do; that's less gruff than we talk here, and softer.

“I'm not come too soon, am I?” he said, casting a look at me: I had begun to wipe the plate, and tidy some drawers at the far end in the dresser.“

“No,” answered Catherine. “What are you doing there, Nelly?”

“My work, Miss,” I replied. (Mr. Hindley had given me directions to make a third party in any private visits Linton chose to pay.)

She stepped behind me and whispered crossly, “Take yourself and your dusters off; when company are in the house, servants don't commence scouring and cleaning in the room where they are!”

“It's a good opportunity, now that master is away,” I answered aloud: “he hates me to be fidgeting over these things in his presence. I'm sure Mr. Edgar will excuse me.”

“I hate you to be fidgeting in my presence,” exclaimed the young lady imperiously, not allowing her guest time to speak: she had failed to recover her equanimity since the little dispute with Heathcliff.

“I'm sorry for it, Miss Catherine,” was my response; and I proceeded assiduously with my occupation.

She, supposing Edgar could not see her, snatched the cloth from my hand, and pinched me, with a prolonged wrench, very spitefully on the arm. I've said I did not love her, and rather relished mortifying her vanity now and then: besides, she hurt me extremely; so I started up from my knees, and screamed out, “Oh, Miss, that's a nasty trick! You have no right to nip me, and I'm not going to bear it.”

“I didn't touch you, you lying creature!” cried she, her fingers tingling to repeat the act, and her ears red with rage. She never had power to conceal her passion, it always set her whole complexion in a blaze.

“What's that, then?” I retorted, showing a decided purple witness to refute her.

She stamped her foot, wavered a moment, and then, irresistibly impelled by the naughty spirit within her, slapped me on the cheek: a stinging blow that filled both eyes with water.

“Catherine, love! Catherine!” interposed Linton, greatly shocked at the double fault of falsehood and violence which his idol had committed.

“Leave the room, Ellen!” she repeated, trembling all over.

Little Hareton, who followed me everywhere, and was sitting near me on the floor, at seeing my tears commenced crying himself, and sobbed out complaints against “wicked aunt Cathy,” which drew her fury on to his unlucky head: she seized his shoulders, and shook him till the poor child waxed livid, and Edgar thoughtlessly laid hold of her hands to deliver him. In an instant one was wrung free, and the astonished young man felt it applied over his own ear in a way that could not be mistaken for jest. He drew back in consternation. I lifted Hareton in my arms, and walked off to the kitchen with him, leaving the door of communication open, for I was curious to watch how they would settle their disagreement. The insulted visitor moved to the spot where he had laid his hat, pale and with a quivering lip.

“That's right!” I said to myself. “Take warning and begone! It's a kindness to let you have a glimpse of her genuine disposition.”

“Where are you going?” demanded Catherine, advancing to the door.

He swerved aside, and attempted to pass.

“You must not go!” she exclaimed, energetically. “

“I must and shall!” he replied in a subdued voice.

“No,” she persisted, grasping the handle; “not yet, Edgar Linton: sit down; you shall not leave me in that temper. I should be miserable all night, and I won't be miserable for you!”

“Can I stay after you have struck me?” asked Linton. Catherine was mute.

“You've made me afraid and ashamed of you,” he continued; “I'll not come here again!”

Her eyes began to glisten and her lids to twinkle.

“And you told a deliberate untruth!” he said.

“I didn't!” she cried, recovering her speech; “I did nothing deliberately. Well, go, if you please—get away! And now I'll cry—I'll cry myself sick!”

She dropped down on her knees by a chair, and set to weeping in serious earnest. Edgar persevered in his resolution as far as the court; there he lingered. I resolved to encourage him.

“Miss is dreadfully wayward, sir,” I called out. “As bad as any marred child: you'd better be riding home, or else she will be sick, only to grieve us.”

The soft thing looked askance through the window: he possessed the power to depart as much as a cat possesses the power to leave a mouse half killed, or a bird half eaten. Ah, I thought, there will be no saving him: he's doomed, and flies to his fate! And so it was: he turned abruptly, hastened into the house again, shut the door behind him; and when I went in a while after to inform them that Earnshaw had come home rabid drunk, ready to pull the whole place about our ears (his ordinary frame of mind in that condition), I saw the quarrel had merely effected a closer intimacy—had broken the outworks of youthful timidity, and enabled them to forsake the disguise of friendship, and confess themselves lovers.

Intelligence of Mr. Hindley's arrival drove Linton speedily to his horse, and Catherine to her chamber. I went to hide little Hareton, and to take the shot out of the master's fowling-piece, which he was fond of playing with in his insane excitement, to the hazard of the lives of any who provoked, or even attracted his notice too much; and I had hit upon the plan of removing it, that he might do less mischief if he did go the length of firing the gun.