Читать онлайн «Nelly Dean»
Like most children, I was accustomed to take what my elders told me as simple truth, never thinking to question it except insofar as it directly concerned myself. Little as I liked the strange new creature, and sorry as I was for the trouble he had brought on my head, it had never occurred to me that there was anything unaccountable in Mr Earnshaw’s having brought him home. That he was a good, wise, and just man I firmly believed. If he thought it his duty to claim a stray child in a far-off city as his responsibility, no doubt it was so. But this did not appear to be my mother’s view of the case.
‘How does he act towards the child? Is he very fond of it?’
‘He seems so. He fires up if anyone seems to be slighting him in any way. He was very angry when he found I’d—’ I stopped, unable to speak further.
‘What did you do, Nelly?’
‘Nothing!’ I cried, all my sense of grievance returning. ‘Hindley and Cathy wouldn’t have him in the nursery, and Mrs Earnshaw was in hysterics that he was in the house at all, and it was left to me to find him a place to sleep, so where was I to put him? What else was I to do? Take him into my own bed? I just left him on the landing, and hoped he’d be gone by morning.’
‘Hush, Nelly. Calm yourself and stop shouting. Did you tell Mr Earnshaw this?’
‘No. I don’t like to carry tales, and—’
‘I didn’t want Hindley to be beaten, as I knew he would be.’
‘Is Hindley beaten often?’
‘I don’t know. Not so very often. It’s just that—’
‘Just … I don’t like to see it. Mr Earnshaw is so angry when he does it. His face gets purple. And Hindley, he … I …’ I took a deep breath, and looked at the ground. ‘I feel as if it’s happening to me.’
‘Does Mr Earnshaw ever beat you?’
‘No. If Hindley and I get into mischief, it is always Hindley who gets the blame – he takes the blame. And I never do wrong on my own. At least not until now. So how could I bring him into it?’
‘What did Mr Earnshaw do when he found out what you’d done with the child?’
‘He was so angry it frightened me. He said … he said I must leave and never come again. But I would rather he had beaten me, if only I could stay. What will Hindley do without me? He’ll have no friend at all. And what will become of me?’
You may think it strange, Mr Lockwood, that a child of fourteen could ask such a question of her mother, and under her father’s roof. But I was mortally afraid of my father, and my mother’s care in keeping me from the sight of him, by making him unfamiliar to me, only increased my terror. No doubt it was wrong of me, but I verily believed he might kill me if he had to see me every day.
My mother sat me down in the kitchen, and shortly produced a mug of tea and some bread and butter. All the while, she was speaking to me in her gentlest tones.
‘Hindley is a difficult lad,’ she said, ‘and has been so from a babe. Mr Earnshaw doesn’t wish to spare the rod and spoil him, and doubtless he is right in that, although … well, it may be difficult for you to see it. Mr Earnshaw may be a hard man, Nelly, but he is a just man. If his anger has not fallen on you before today, it is because he has cause to believe Hindley is at the root of any mischief you two get into together. And that is so, is it not? Did you not say you never do wrong except with him – until now, anyway?’
I nodded silently, looking steadily into my mug of tea.
‘It is generous in Hindley to take all the blame to himself,’ she went on. ‘It shows a good heart. But it means you have all the more duty to head him away from wrongdoing when you are with him, Nelly. That is the best way to shield him from punishment.’
‘But how am I to do that if I am never to return?’ I wailed.
‘Leave that to me,’ she said, and began removing her apron and wrapping her shawl, preparatory to going out. I rose and was beginning to do the same, but she stopped me.
‘You stay here, Nelly. I am going to the Heights, and I will see what I can do to allow you to return there, but I must go alone.’ I glanced towards the door, not liking to say what was in my mind.
‘In all likelihood I will be back before your father returns. But if I’m not—’ She began looking about the cottage – perhaps for a likely hiding place, I thought, though the rooms were too small and sparsely furnished to afford one. At last, with an air of decision, she reached down the crock of sugar, and, feeling her way to the bottom of it, pulled out a small purse, from which she drew two shillings, and put them on the table.
‘Tell him you’ve brought him your wages,’ she said. My eyes widened at this. The teaching at Wuthering Heights was strong on the Commandments, and lying to my father, I thought, would be breaking two at one blow. She must have guessed my thought, for she flushed and added, ‘You needn’t say an untruth – indeed I wouldn’t wish you to. Leave the coins on the table, and only say “I’m getting wages now” – that should be true enough by the time you’ve said it, if my errand goes well.’ She thought a bit more, then added, ‘If he asks if that’s all your wages, just say “I’ve given you all I got” – that’s true too. The money will soften your welcome, and with any luck he’ll go off with it to town straight away, and won’t return until you’re abed – but most likely I’ll be back before he comes in anyway, as I said.’
No doubt this was a good plan, and ‘with luck’ might have worked well enough, but I had no intention of staying to find that out. As soon as my mother was out of sight behind a rise I got up myself and followed her, keeping well back and behind such cover as I could find. When we got nearer the Heights, this was easy enough, for Hindley and I had learned every dip and hollow all around, and prided ourselves on being able to disappear from view at a moment’s notice – particularly when chores or lessons were in the offing.
I had expected that my mother would go straight to Mrs Earnshaw, her old friend and staunchest ally in the household, so I was surprised to see her seek out the master instead, and in a manner that told me she had no wish to be spotted by the mistress first. This puzzled me, until I reflected that her wish to get home before my father’s return meant she must dispatch her business quickly, and that it was the master, after all, who had banned me from the house, and must be won over to agree to my return.
Mr Earnshaw had carved out an office for himself from the corner of the nearer barn – little more than a closet, really, but lit with a small window, and furnished with a desk, a couple of chairs, and a brazier for hot coals in winter. Here he kept his account books, and met with his tenants and any others with whom he had business that he did not wish to intrude on the house, where the mistress held sway.
I was not near enough to hear what was said when my mother found Mr Earnshaw in another barn examining a lame horse, but the consequence of it was that they both went into the ‘office’ and closed the door.
Under the office window was a large and fiercely prickly gooseberry bush, placed there, no doubt, so as to discourage eavesdroppers. But years before, Hindley and I had amused ourselves one lazy afternoon by constructing a ‘secret passageway’, low to the ground between the bush and the wall. We had carefully lined it with willow twigs and grasses, to allow us to squeeze through without being snagged on the prickles, into a space carved out of the centre of the bush, scarcely large enough for the two of us to huddle in together, but perfectly situated to render audible anything that was said in the office. We never overheard anything of real interest to us there, but, by christening our little hideaway ‘the robbers’ cave’, and performing the like transformation on whatever we heard there – as, turning shillings into pounds, and pounds into bags of gold, or taking ‘milk’ as code for brandy, ‘sultanas’ for pearls and rubies, and ‘a ewe lamb’ for an Arabian mare of priceless bloodlines, we contrived to imagine ourselves as a pair of hardened bandits with prices on our heads, ruthlessly planning the violent diversion of all this precious cargo.
It had been a few years since Hindley and I had last pushed our way under the gooseberry bush together, having outgrown its accommodation for the two of us, but the passage was still there, only a little dilapidated with time, and when I had squeezed myself along it into the old cave, I found it cramped but adequate for myself alone. I carefully settled down to listen.
‘So you have thrown Nelly out of the house,’ began my mother, with a directness that rather startled me.
‘By her own fault,’ he responded quickly, and told again what she had already had from me, much dwelling on the bad heart shown in my cruelty to an unfriended orphan, so that I was like to begin sobbing all over again, but that my fear of discovery was more powerful than my grief.
‘She did wrong there, to be sure. But she had seen the child bring sorrow and strife into the house – the mistress distraught and angry, and her nursery-mates dismayed, and it was that more than cruelty that made her act as she did. Whatever possessed you to bring the child home in the first place?’
‘I found him starving in the street in Liverpool, and no one to claim him or care for him.’
‘Aye, and could have found two or three more on every corner there, if what I hear is true. Not to mention the poor of our own parish, whom it would better become you to aid than a stranger from far away – particularly as some of them are your own tenants.’
‘It is not for you to dictate to me how or to whom I extend charity, Mrs Dean. That is between me and my conscience.’
‘Very well then. What was the business that brought you to Liverpool?’
‘That too is between me and my conscience.’
‘Ah. It’s as I thought then – the “business” and the boy are one and the same.’
‘I don’t know quite what you mean to imply. I can assure you that the boy was unknown to me before I went, nor do I know any more of his parentage or circumstances than I have told already.’ There was a short pause. ‘But I will not deny to you that I had some such purpose in making this journey. And I trust that knowing this will make plainer to you the importance of treating this poor child with consideration.’
‘I would more willingly grant that if you had not made him the occasion for thrusting my own child from your hearth.’
‘Your child has a home, to which it is perhaps time she returned. She should come under her own father’s discipline.’
‘Her father’s discipline was like to have killed her! For pity’s sake, Mr Earnshaw, do you not remember the condition she was in when I brought her here? Her arm broken, her eye blacked, and all over bruises? If he could treat her so as a child of four, what will he do now?’
‘Nelly is old enough now to avoid giving offence.’
‘Do you think he will wait for her to give offence? Her very existence gives offence to him! I have seen him with her, sir, as you have not. She has but to walk into the room for him to be lit up with rage. He will take offence at the way she stands, or walks, or sits in a chair. I had hoped it would be better when our son was born, but though he doted on the lad, it did little to soften him towards Nell. And since he died,’ she paused to regain her voice, ‘it is as if all his grief were changed into anger at her. You would have thought she had had a hand in his death, to hear him. And this, even though I had made sure she was away from home during the whole of the poor child’s illness – though it was a bitter sorrow to her that she was unable to say farewell.’
‘You ought not to complain of your husband to me,’ said the master, but his voice had softened.
‘I don’t wish to. I have made my bed, and I will lie in it. But you must forgive a mother’s concern for the welfare of her child. Mr Earnshaw, please think of what this means for her. Do you think I am happy to have her so far from me, or to let her believe, as I know she does, that I bear her too little love to care much for her company? Do you think I like to see her loving your wife with the love she might have given me? For pity’s sake, sir, give her back the refuge here that you promised me for her ten years ago in this very room. Far be it from me to hinder your fulfilment of any vow you may have made with regard to this strange child, but bethink you, sir: can an act of penance be acceptable to the Lord if its burden falls heavier on others than on the penitent? That were like offering as sacrifice a ram taken from another man’s flock.’
A long silence followed this speech. When the master finally spoke, it was in a voice so low I could scarcely follow it.
‘There is something in what you say, Mrs Dean. I have perhaps been overly hasty in sending your daughter away. But neither can I simply remit her punishment. It must be clear, not only to her but to the whole household, that this child must be treated with all the consideration due to my own son.’
‘And is my—’ but whatever my mother had been about to say, she thought better of it. I heard her draw a deep breath, such as I had sometimes seen her do to calm herself when angry, and when she spoke her voice was steady. ‘Banish her for a day or two if you must,’ she said. ‘I can keep her so long at least without too much difficulty. And when she returns, let her return on the footing of a servant – the change will seem to her and your children to mark your displeasure clearly enough. And I do think it best, with this new child in the house, for her to understand her own place more clearly. She has been playmate to your children and a sharer in their lessons longer already than a girl of her … her birth and prospects can expect. In addition,’ she added more hesitantly, ‘her father expects her to be earning, but I don’t want her going into the mills: that work is bad for girls – both for their bodily health and their character.’
Mr Earnshaw concurred.
‘I have heard that Martha Pickerell will be leaving you soon to be married. Nell can take her place. You need pay her no more than is customary for girls her age who are new to service – a shilling a week to start with, which is a good deal less than Martha earns now – and she’s a quick-witted lass and a hard worker’ – I was pleased to hear a grunt of assent here from the master – ‘so you will not lose anything by it. I have been teaching her the dairying on my days here already, and I’ve no doubt that in time she will be able to manage that too, and more than repay you for all your kindness to her.’
To my astonishment, the master let out a grim chuckle. ‘If she takes after you at all, Mary, I’ve no doubt she will manage us all quite nicely.’
‘Oh yes, I have managed very well for myself, have I not?’ my mother replied bitterly. This produced another awkward silence.
‘Very well then,’ he said at last, ‘Nelly shall come back with us, say after church on Sunday, and on the terms you suggest.’ Relief flooded me (making its exit in a gush of silent tears), not only that I might come back, but that, as it seemed, Mr Earnshaw’s goodwill and good humour were restored – for much as I longed to return to the Heights, I had rather dreaded living henceforth under his displeasure.
I would have expected that my mother, having gained her point, would head homeward forthwith, so I was surprised to hear her broaching a new subject: ‘And this new child, what place will he have?’
‘I shall raise him as one of my own.’
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