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‘I might have known,’ she said – and then, seeing me about to elaborate, ‘No, don’t tell me what he said. I’m sure it was not worth hearing, let alone repeating. And I suppose you replied in kind?’ I nodded, shamefaced. ‘Well, he’ll carry that to the master, for sure. How many times have I told you to leave him be? Just because someone pours gunpowder in your ear, there’s no need for you to set a spark to it. And the worst punishment you can give that old fool is to ignore him when he starts ranting at you.’
‘He called me “witch bastard”,’ I burst out in spite of myself. Her face went still.
‘Did he now?’ she said quietly, and then looked at me for a bit in silence. Then she gave herself a little shake, and said, ‘Don’t you think any more about it, Nell. You’re not a bastard, and as for “witch”, Joseph thinks all women are witches – except perhaps his sister, who’s as dried up and miserable as he is himself. So pay no mind to what he says, and he’ll soon tire of provoking you. Now, then, what about my cattle?’
‘Joseph put them away – he knew where they were to go. Do you think he’ll mistreat them?’
‘If they were only my cows, I have no doubt he would drive them into the nearest bog – but I’ve been careful to arrange things so that it’s in the master’s interest for them to be well looked after, and Joseph knows it. Oh, he’ll grumble about them, and at them too, most like, but he’ll do all he can to be sure that Rosie gives good milk all winter and Feelie and Vi both bear healthy calves.’
‘He said it was a bad bargain the master made,’ I couldn’t resist adding.
‘And would have said the same if I were paying their weight in gold,’ my mother replied. ‘Now I’m serious, Nell, pay no mind to what Joseph says. And you are not to carry me any more tales about him. Do you understand?’
I nodded, and the subject was dropped. But I have reason to believe she spoke to the master on the subject, for, though Joseph continued to mutter that I was a witch, he never again called me a bastard, nor did he ever refer to my mother by any worse name than ‘Mrs Dean’ or ‘your mother’ – though he contrived to throw into the latter enough scorn that you would have thought there was no worse title to be had.
My mother would have liked to return home that evening, not wanting to leave even Reenie’s milking to the neighbour’s boy she had left in charge, but night was falling by the time all was settled at the Heights, and the night being moonless and cloudy to boot, it was of that inky blackness wherein you cannot see your own feet, let alone the path ahead. So she was persuaded to spend the night with us. The mistress was all for making up the guest bed for her, but my mother would not hear of it, and insisted on sharing my little bed instead. So I was very warm that night, sleeping in her arms for the first time since I was a little child. In the morning she kissed me goodbye, and promised to write to me and the mistress both, and the mistress cried heartily, and I cried a little, too, as we watched her disappear over the nearest rise.
A few weeks later, I had my first letter from her.
My dearest Nell,
You will be glad to know that I arrived safely in Brassing, and am now settled with your father in a cottage on the edge of the town. I was glad not to be in the centre, for the stench there is dreadful to someone accustomed to the clean air of the moors. I think my cowshed at home is sweeter to the nose. But I am getting used to it now. The cottage your father found was smaller than we have at home, and not over-clean, but I have got it done up now and it will do.
Reenie made the trip like a born traveller; she was only leaner and a bit footsore by the time she got here. She too has smaller and poorer lodgings than she did at home, but when I have got your father to plug some holes in the wall, and found some better straw for the floor, she will be quite cosy. It is warmer here, with all these houses to stop the wind, and everyone burning coal as well. We share a wall with a family of wool-combers, and they keep their stove red-hot all day long – they have to, you know, or the grease in the wool goes hard, and it can’t be combed out.
If you ever feel sorry that you were born poor, Nelly, think on these poor wool-combers’ children, who from early childhood work all day long in a hot, airless room, doing hard and monotonous labour, and live on bad bread (the bread here is shocking) and worse tea. There are six of them altogether, all sleeping on one filthy pallet, like a heap of puppies. I am doing what I can for them, at any rate. At every morning and evening’s milking, they line up, from youngest to oldest, and drink each in turn a mugful of Reenie’s good fresh milk. I told their father it was in payment for his stove half heating our cottage for us.
I had planned to sell the rest of the milk in the marketplace – what we don’t use ourselves, that is – but I am not to have that trouble, it seems. Word is out in the neighbourhood that we have a cow, and folk just show up at the door with their pitchers and cans and their coins, and they all say they have never tasted such milk in all their lives, which I can well believe. So I am quite a feature in the neighbourhood now, and have many acquaintances already.
Your father is earning very good wages, and drinks but little of them, so there is a good deal of money in the house. But living in the town is more expensive than I ever imagined, as we must buy everything we need, even to the greens we eat – and it’s no easy matter finding good ones, I can tell you. I go to the market at dawn, even before the milking, to get the freshest stuff, and pay extra for it, too. But what I meant to say is that we have enough money, so you can save your wages, and perhaps get yourself a new winter dress, as you have nearly outgrown the old one. Don’t go spending your money on trifles, though, Nelly.
Take good care of yourself in this weather. Always wrap up about the neck before you go outside, and drink something hot when you come in. And never, never go about with your feet wet. And work hard, and do your duty. Send my love to the family, and to my ladies too. Your father sends his love.
Your loving mother,
The next few months passed quietly enough. My mother kept up a regular correspondence with the mistress, so she and I exchanged shorter letters enclosed in those to save on postage, but there was little enough to tell, particularly as I did not care to comment on Hindley, who was going from bad to worse, despite all my best efforts to restrain him.
It was early March, and the snows were just starting to recede from the roads, when Cathy came running into the kitchen to announce that she had spied a pony carriage coming our way, and who could it be? We all hurried out to look, but could make out no more than that it was a woman driving, and not like anyone we knew. The mistress sent us back in again with orders to put the kettle on for tea and see to it that the house was presentable, while she ran upstairs to freshen her toilette for a visitor. When the cart pulled up, we saw that it was driven by a handsome, fresh-faced woman, perhaps thirty years of age. Her gown and pelisse were of good materials, and well made, in a simple, sober style, her only mark of fashion being a jaunty bonnet from which sprang a beautiful dark-dyed ostrich feather.
She jumped lightly down from the carriage and handed the reins to one of the lads hovering around. Cathy and I had been instructed to make ourselves scarce, so we were crouched at the top of the stairs, trying to be within sight and sound of the visitor without being seen or heard ourselves. But the lady spoke in a low, soft voice to the mistress, and we could not make out any of it. We were not left in suspense for long, though, for as soon as they had consulted, the mistress called out to me.
‘Nelly, come down here and meet Mrs Thorne. She has a message for you from your mother.’ I came down and curtseyed as the mistress introduced me. Then she took both my hands in hers, and I looked up and saw tears in her eyes. My heart dropped. I opened my mouth to speak, but could get nothing out.
‘So you are little Ellen,’ she said kindly. ‘I am so sorry we should meet under these circumstances, dear child, but I have sad news to bring you. Your father has had an accident at work. A stone they were moving slipped and fell on top of him. He is badly injured, and it is not known whether he can recover. Your mother is with him now, and dare not leave his side, so I said that I would come to fetch you. I know this is very sudden, but do you think you can gather some things together and be ready to go with me, in perhaps half an hour? I should like to get back as soon as we can.’
I felt as if I had been struck with a stone myself, but I nodded mutely and turned to go upstairs. But the mistress took one look at my white face and folded me in her arms instead, and instructed the other maidservant to fetch tea for all three of us.
‘There will be time enough to get ready when you have both sat down and refreshed yourselves,’ she said. I sat down. I could not cry, but could not seem to do anything else either. Finally the tea arrived, which at least gave me something to do with my hands and mouth. Meanwhile, Mrs Thorne and the mistress kept up a low, soothing patter of small talk. Mrs Thorne, it appeared, was the young wife of my father’s friend – I had recognized the name when she came in. She owned quite frankly that she was ‘new to being a fine lady’, having begun life as a factory girl, and met her future husband at the works before his career was well begun.
‘It was a great relief to me to meet Mrs Dean,’ she said. ‘I do have a difficult time talking to the well-bred ladies I am supposed to visit all day. They talk of nothing but scandal, their children, and the iniquities of servants, whereas Mrs Dean is full of good, practical advice on everything from the planting of a kitchen garden to the best books to read, and she never tries to make me feel ignorant or crude.’
This set the mistress off on one of her favourite themes: the good sense, omni-competence, and general all-around excellence of my mother, though she carefully refrained, in this case, from interleaving her talk with the usual regrets and complaints that she no longer lived at Wuthering Heights. It was as soothing a cover as they could have hit upon under which I could recover my wits a little, and in a few minutes I had gathered enough of them to look about me a bit, and begin to stir myself to get ready. At this point, Cathy, who had been hovering in a corner, jumped up.
‘Shall I pack your things for you, Nelly?’ she asked, evidently eager to be of help. I was about to decline, but, before I could speak, the mistress accepted on my behalf, and Cathy raced upstairs to begin. I wanted to go up with her, not quite trusting her judgement, but the mistress kept me next to her on the sofa, saying I must rest for the journey to come. Cathy, meanwhile, came to the head of the stairs every few minutes to consult.
‘You will want your new brown dress, won’t you, Nelly?’ was her first query, and then ‘Mama, may Nelly borrow your old valise?’ and next, ‘What is she to do for gloves, Mama? Yours would be too small for her,’ and ‘Will she need a clean apron?’ By the time all these questions and more had been settled, and Cathy had dragged the packed valise to the top of the stairs for Hindley to carry down, I had to acknowledge she had done a better job than I could have in my present addled state. Nor were we much behind the half-hour Mrs Thorne had allotted to us to get ready. Mrs Earnshaw hugged and kissed and cried over me, assuring me all the while that I would be back soon enough, and my mother with me. Then she dug a crown out of her purse to bestow on me, and I shook hands with all the children and the master too (he had come in in the meantime), and the master told me to be a good girl, and we climbed into the carriage, and were off.
At Gimmerton we exchanged the pony and carriage for a post-chaise, and drove on to Brassing at the fastest pace the post-boy could be coaxed to permit, stopping only to change horses again. All this was very new to me, and would have been a wondering pleasure, but in me both thought and feeling seemed stuck in one round. I didn’t know which I feared more: that my father would die before I arrived, or that he would be alive, and not pleased to see me. Mrs Thorne seemed to understand something of what I was feeling, for she talked but little herself, and asked almost nothing of me.
Brassing, when we finally drew nigh, looked to be a much larger town than Gimmerton, but it had little else to recommend it that I could see. The houses were of grey stone, and crowded together all higgledy-piggledy, and the air was thick with an acrid miasma composed of coal smoke mingled with the smell of open privies. The post-boy let us down at the top of a narrow lane, next to a small public house. Mrs Thorne said we would stop in there to get ready. Inside, she carried out a whispered consultation with the landlady, who then produced a pair of pattens for each of us. Mrs Thorne pulled a packet of pins from her bag, and said we must pin up our skirts, and strap on the pattens, before venturing into the lane, for it was ankle-deep, or worse, in dirt. I was in a trembling hurry to be on our way, but she assured me, on the landlady’s information, that there was no immediate cause for haste. Once equipped, we set off down the lane. Mrs Thorne kept a tight grip on my arm, which was just as well, as I was unaccustomed both to pattens and to cobblestones, and until I found my feet, each step threatened to pitch me head-foremost into the muck. From halfway down that lane, we turned into another still narrower, and at the end of it I saw my mother standing in a doorway. Mrs Thorne restrained me from rushing forward, but quickened her pace, and in another minute I was in my mother’s arms. Mrs Thorne stayed only to receive my mother’s thanks for fetching me, and then went on her way back up the lane.
‘How is Father?’ I asked, as soon as I caught my breath.
‘He’s resting,’ she said, and then set me on a stool in the entryway and began removing the pattens and taking the pins from my skirt. That done, she declared me fit to step indoors. The cottage had two small rooms, but the door to the bedroom was shut. My mother sat me down by the small fire, and fetched me tea and some sweet biscuits. For some time, she would not let me speak, only directing me to eat and drink instead. I would have thought that I had no appetite at all, but the tea awakened it, and between it, the biscuits, and some bread and cheese that followed, I found the haze lifting that I had been in since Mrs Thorne’s first news.
‘Do you think Father will wake soon?’ I asked at last. ‘When will I be able to see him?’ My mother knelt beside me and put her arms around me. Her eyes were filled with tears.
‘Oh Nelly, he will never wake more in this world,’ she said. ‘He went to his final rest some three hours since. He asked for you near the end, though, to say farewell, and to beg your forgiveness for his early cruelty to you.’ This opened the floodgates at last. I sobbed myself into exhaustion on her shoulder, and she sobbed as well. Then a woman opened the door to the bedroom to say that all was ready – she had been engaged to wash his body and lay it out. So we went in, both of us, and I saw my father. The stone had struck his chest, so his face was his own, only paler and thinner than I remembered. I bent down and kissed his cold cheek – the first kiss I ever bestowed on him, that I remember, and the last.
My father lay in state for two days, so that his friends and neighbours could come to pay their respects. Mr and Mrs Thorne were among the first, and they spoke simply and frankly of their respect for my father, and their regret that they should have been in some manner the cause of his death, and Mr Thorne shed real tears for his boyhood friend. They also left with us a hamper of food, containing a ham, a large Dundee cake, a block of good Cheddar cheese, and a packet of fine tea, to feed ourselves and to offer to the other mourners as they came. There were a good many of them, for all my father’s residence in the town had been so short – all the men who had worked with him or under him on the house, and all those whose acquaintance he had made in the pub. My mother’s milk customers came too, and the wool-comber next door with his children. Their grief was very real, though I think it was less for my father himself than for the imminent departure of my mother and her cow.
My mother did not wish my father to be buried in Brassing, where the churchyards were all crowded and airless. The weather being cool, she resolved to transport him back home, to be buried in the churchyard at Gimmerton. The Thornes very kindly arranged all this, so we had only to pack up the household’s few things to put in a hired wagon (not the one the coffin was in, to my relief) and tie Reenie to the back of it, before setting off home. Our progress going back was considerably slower than mine had been on the way, but another day brought us within sight of my parents’ cottage. Reenie grew excited then, and threatened to overset the wagon, so my mother untied her, whereupon she tossed her head and took off at a slow, lumbering gallop towards the barn.
‘Well, she is not sorry to shake the dust of Brassing from her feet, at any rate,’ said my mother.
And so we settled back into our old places – I at the Heights, and my mother at the cottage, which she had resolved to keep. I used most of my small stock of savings to buy myself a full suit of mourning, and made much of my grief for my father. Had I known what was coming, I would have saved my tears.
I did not dare to speak to you of her death – the mistress’s, that is – how it tore us all apart, and left wounds that never did heal. Yet if I didn’t mention it to you, you might have asked about it at any time, and caught me unawares, and that would be worse. So I gabbled over it as fast as I could, and in the wrong place, too, so that I had to go back and tell things that came before it, as if they were after. But this is cool paper, that soaks up all I tell it without remark, and I am not so grieved now as I was then, either, by all that happened in those days.
It began with the measles. It was midsummer. My mother, I forgot to mention, had left her little cottage. It proved lonelier than she had expected, she said, without my father. And then Mrs Thorne, who had been much impressed with my mother’s good sense and practical energy, wrote to ask if she would come back to Brassing to manage the dairy Mrs Thorne had been persuaded by her to establish. She offered generous terms, including the purchase of all my mother’s cows, and my mother thought it best to accept. But her cows were not all as fresh-footed as young Reenie, and so my mother, as she put it, ‘turned drover for a time’, driving the cows before her at an easy pace, taking frequent rests, and boarding at farmhouses along the way.
It was only a day or two after she had left that Hindley first took sick with the measles, and Cathy caught them soon after, and it fell on me to nurse them, for I had been through the measles already, as a baby. It was no easy task: Cathy and Hindley complained vociferously of their many discomforts, and called on me peremptorily for help as if every cup of water or basin to be emptied and cleaned were the only thing standing between them and a speedy exit from this life. Heathcliff I tried to protect from infection by keeping him away from Cathy, for his own sake, and because I could not imagine how I was to manage without him to fetch things up and down the stairs and keep the coal-bin loaded, the fire burning, and the kettle full. It wasn’t easy to keep them apart, but I told him that the excitement of seeing him would make Cathy’s fever worse, and I took to locking the door of the children’s sickroom whenever I was not there to guard it. But then Cathy’s fever reached a crisis, and she began crying out at one moment that she was afraid to die, and at the next that she could not bear to live another minute. After that, nothing in Heaven or earth, I believe, could have kept him from her. I woke from an exhausted nap to find my pocket picked and the key gone, and found them both in her bed, clasped in each other’s arms while Heathcliff sobbed and Cathy alternately burned and shivered. After that, Heathcliff took the infection, of course, though he hid it as long as he could, and took to his bed only when the telltale spots confessed his secret for him.
Then the mistress took the infection as well, which was odd, for she said she had had the measles in her youth. As a patient, she was gentle and undemanding, but she fretted continually, dividing her time between dreading the loss of her children and fearing that she would leave them motherless. Hers looked to be a mild case, to judge from the spots, but Mr Earnshaw was concerned about her, and called in Dr Kenneth.
He came later that day, looking harried and exhausted. The weather had turned remarkably hot – even the nights brought no relief – and this, he told us, had set off a rash of putrid fevers all over the neighbourhood, which had him running off his feet from morning to night.
This was not the Dr Robert Kenneth who attended you, Mr Lockwood, but his father, Dr Richard Kenneth. The former was a lad only a couple of years older than Hindley and me, and he had often been a playmate of ours when we were quite small, and the doctor was a frequent visitor to the mistress. At fourteen – that would be a year or two before Heathcliff came – he had been formally prenticed to his father, and after that we saw him less. His father called him Robin, and Hindley and I, through some childish corruption of that with his last name, and because he used to be so slight he could sit between the two of us on one stout pony, had come to call him Bodkin, and Bodkin he still was to us, whenever we did see him.
So Dr Kenneth came to see us, as I said. About the mistress he looked grave.
‘The whole system must be weak,’ he said, ‘to take ill of this after having it in her youth.’ He prescribed bed rest, beef jellies, and port wine, fortified with a brown mixture he left with us.
Heathcliff was only just coming out in the spots when the doctor came, while Cathy and Hindley were in full bloom. The latter were noisy and demanding patients, as I said before, but Heathcliff was quiet as a lamb, and so I had assumed his was the milder case. But Dr Kenneth clucked and sighed as he examined him.
‘He’s not of English stock, I think,’ he said. ‘God only knows where his parents were from. These foreign-bred folk can take our common illnesses quite hard. I would advise you to watch him closely. And don’t set too much store by what he says, Nelly – I’m thinking he’s one of those that suffer in silence. Judge by his spots, his fever, and his appetite.’
Dr Kenneth went into the next room, then, to talk to the master privately, and Bodkin motioned me over.
‘Father claims that whenever he hears a patient moaning and complaining a great deal, he has good hopes of their recovery. He says that crying out is almost as good as bloodletting for releasing poisons from the body. I thought at first that he only said that to cheer nurses with tiresome patients on their hands, but now that I have been observing cases with him, I think there is a grain of truth in it. Look to young Heathcliff, Nelly, and don’t let the other two wear you down.’ I assured him that I would.
Seeing my hands full with the children, the master said he would take over the nursing of his wife himself, which he did, I must say, with great gentleness and thoughtful consideration. But everything else in the house fell onto my shoulders. Joseph, who had never had the measles and was mortally afraid of contracting them, made up a pallet for himself in the barn, and took charge of all matters in the dairy and out-of-doors, never setting foot in the house. There was no time to make cheese or churn butter, and it was too hot for milk to keep, so I made up the pots of porridge for myself and my patients with fresh milk instead of water; we set the two calves to nurse for themselves on our gentlest cow, and sent the remainder of the milk home with the dairymaid, who lived hard by with her parents and a pack of hungry brothers and sisters.
The days that followed recur to my memory now like time spent in another world. I seemed to be continually running or rushing about, except when I composed myself to attend to one of my patients, or collapsed into a few hours’ exhausted sleep before waking in terror that someone had died.
Cathy and Hindley took so much of my time and attention that I all but ignored Heathcliff for a while. I was just settling them for sleep one night, when I heard a low moan from his bed, and turned to look after him. He lay on his back, still as death, and spoke not a word, but only panted faintly, his eyes wide with terror as they followed my motions, like a wounded fox that sees the dogs approach, and hopes for no mercy but a speedy end. I poured him a cup of water, and held up his head for him to drink it, and he drank greedily at first, his eyes fixed on me all the time, but swallowing seemed to pain him, and after a few gulps he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, and I laid him back down. I was speaking soothingly to him all the while – softly, so as not to wake Cathy or Hindley, but he said nothing, and gave no sign of recognition. When I felt his forehead his skin burned to my touch – Cathy and Hindley had been feverish too, but nothing like this.
My heart smote me then, that I had not attended better to Bodkin’s advice. I thought, if I could not bring down his fever, he might die, and his death would be on my hands, for had I not neglected him, while attending to the others? I stripped the bedclothes off him, and his nightshirt as well. Then I wetted a cloth with water from the pitcher and washed him all over, in an effort to cool his burning skin.
I have said it was hot, but there was at this time such a heat spell as I have never known before or since. Day and night, the air was still and sweltering; there was no coolness to be found anywhere in the house, even in the stillroom. Even the water in the pitcher was lukewarm, and it only sat on the poor boy’s skin like sweat, instead of drying off to cool him. I ran downstairs to fetch fresher – and, I hoped, cooler – water from the large jar in the kitchen, but it was little better. In my desperation, at length I bethought me of the well. Normally we drew our water from a shallow well in the courtyard, but the heat had caused the water in it to go foul, so we had resorted to an older well nearby, customarily used for watering the stock. It was a deep one, and water fresh-drawn from it had always the coolness of deep earth, whatever the weather. But the well was a good distance from the house, and the night black as pitch, with no moon, and stars obscured by the low haze of moisture in the air. I hastily prepared a lantern, though, and made my way as best I could to the well to draw a fresh bucketful. It was as cool as I hoped, so I filled my pitcher afresh and hurried back to the house to try its effect on my patient.
His skin was still so hot to the touch, I half-fancied I could hear it sizzle when I applied the cloths, like water on a hot skillet. But the cool cloths did seem to give him some ease. His breathing slowed and became deeper, and his eyes looked less fearful. I lifted him again for another cool drink of water, and when he was done, his lips moved to thank me, though no sound came from them, and tears welled in his eyes. I kept up bathing him with water from the pitcher, but it was not long before it grew warm again and lost its power to cool him. Then I rushed out again to fill it from the well, and began all over again.
Thus began the longest and strangest night of my life. I rushed back and forth from the well to Heathcliff’s sickbed, bathing his burning skin continually except when I ran out to replenish the water in the pitcher. I stopped only to drink water myself at the well, for the rushing in and out of doors and up and down the stairs kept the sweat pouring off me in rivulets, though I had stripped myself to my shift because of the heat. By the time I saw the first glow of grey dawn in the east, my arms and legs were quivering with exhaustion, and my breath came in sobs at each new exertion. Yet I dreaded the coming of day, for fear the sun would add to the heat, and make my struggle against Heathcliff’s fever yet harder.
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