Chapter 19 – Revelations.
Isabella was by now so used to her place of servitude under Heathcliff's direction, that she had made tea for both Nelly and Joseph without preparing a cup for herself. Once she had corrected this, and brought her own steaming cup to the table, she looked them each in the eye.
"Now," she said flatly, "you shall tell me all that there is to know about the circumstances surrounding my sister-in-law and the hold she has on my husband and on my brother."
Joseph glowered. "Ah cannae bring mesel' ta speak o' such things -" he began, but Isabella cut him off with a look.
"You shall tell me," she said calmly, "all there is to know."
Both Joseph and Nelly were quite taken aback by this show of strength. Both knew Isabella primarily as a mild, weak, simpering creature, Nelly having not seen her transformation over the last few months and Joseph being more accustomed to discovering others' faults than their virtues. They both sat there, stunned into silence.
Nelly spoke first. "There were three children born to this household, Isabella, and you know two of them. Few in the village even knew of the third child, the youngest and weakest of the Earnshaws, and fewer still suspect there was anything unnatural about any of the three, though many credit your husband with more scandal and superstition than is right, to my knowledge. Truth to tell, the men living in this house are both far from the darkest things to enter into it. Are you sure, my girl, that you wish to hear this tale?"
Isabella simply looked at her.
Nelly sighed. "I promised Mr. Earnshaw I would never speak of this matter. You make a liar of me, girl. And of all those I should swear to, that man were the most blameless one I could ever -"
Her plea fell on deaf ears. The silence emptied out the air in the room, until Nelly could bear it no longer and was forced to fill it with truth.
"You are familiar, I take it, with changeling children?"
"Ach, 'tis naught but the work o' the de'il!" Joseph interjected furiously. "Nae fairies, nae elves, ye ken reet well, wumman – the de'il put 'is mark on this house and 'tis all any cud do as tae contain it!"
"Whatever it is, Joseph," snapped Nelly, "it took the life of one child and the place of another. All three children born to this house were hale and hearty when they arrived. Bonnier children you never saw. But two of them were changed."
Isabella sat astonished. Changelings? She knew the stories, of course: everyone heard this or that rumour when they grew up, each a story of horror and despair: a child born to parents, once thought barren, that lived ten years and never grew past infancy; a child of uncommon appearance and evil temper which burned its house, taking the lives of all who lived there including itself... The children were said to have been replaced by fairy creatures, the original children taken who-knew-where, or else a malevolent spirit bound to the child itself, corrupting what might-have-been into something cruel, insane, and evil.
Such stories were always said to have occurred in some far-off village, that so-and-so's grandfather's cousin had heard from a friend who swore it to be true... And everyone at her age knew them to be nothing but fancy. Was that not the case? Was there really truth to such tales?
Until the incident with her newly-acquired horseshoe, Isabella would have dismissed such a story without hesitation, a mere invention of Nelly Dean's imagination, and yet this tale rang far more true than was comfortable for her. She found herself fingering the horseshoe, almost without thinking.
"Young Heathcliff started looking drawn at the fourth week. Any who looked upon him could have sworn it was a different child. By the seventh, there was no life left in it."
"Heathcliff? But Heathcliff is-"
"Your Heathcliff was named for the child Mr. Earnshaw was grieving. His adoption was a great show of charity on Mr. Earnshaw's part, and his naming of the orphan, I think, was his way of marking the boy as a part of the family. The baby that was your husband's namesake is buried a half-mile from Top Withens: the minister would not have it buried in the churchyard, despite having baptised the boy himself: he swore blind that the body Mr Earnshaw brought to him was not the child he had seen."
"I never even heard of the child!" gasped Isabella. "And my late father knew Mr. Earnshaw for most of their years!"
"All who knew of the child's existence, my girl, have never breathed a word of it to any other. 'Tis a mark of respect to the family. And they know that I would soon hear of it, if they did! Do you think I mind being called a gossip? And gossip I surely do, and should I ever hear one word of the child from any mortal lip, I should-" Nelly paused for a moment. "Well, in truth I know not what I should do. But they know that I would know it, and that it good enough reason for those who know of such things to keep their silence."
"Who else knows?"
"Most don't. Don't ask me again. I shall tell you the tale, girl, for you leave me no option, but I shall not give you names to start pestering and questioning. Joseph and I shall answer you what you need to know, and we shall then hear an end to it, do you understand?"
Isabella nodded mutely.
"Very well; I shall speak further, then. The child that became Cathy Earnshaw was healthy and bonny, and playful and merry, and oh! a joy to nurse. And then she had her screaming, when her teeth came in. And then – after that, her temper was changed. Rages, fits of temper such as you never could imagine – she first bit me with those same teeth whilst I tried only to bathe her!"
"And few e'er questioned it," snarled Joseph through gritted teeth, "save old Earnshaw and meself. We saw what it was about. No beatin's, nor sermons, nor owt could e'er change 'er. Smile, she would, and look so pretty, and within a day she would find a way o' doin' worse. And all else but us would pretend as though it ne'er 'appened! We forgave, old Earnshaw and I, as Christ forgave, but all the men around us didnae e'en see the flaysome things she did!"
"That's true, right enough," Nelly nodded. "Why, you own brother gave her his proposal not half an hour after she had pinched and slapped me, shaken the baby and fair boxed Edgar's own ears! Did you ever hear of such things inviting a proposal? Any other woman would have found herself branked for it, not engaged!"
"Aye, but what should the bridle 'ave taught such as her?" mused Joseph, looking glum. "Heathcliff ne'er changed, for every beating an' whippin', and nor did she: hard chance anything wud ha' worked upon 'er, e'en if it brought 'er halfway to death."
Isabella said nothing. She was remembering the men at the fair the week before, and how they had stood mute and awed as Cathy assaulted her brother and husband, doing nothing even as she began kicking and slapping them both. Neither man had done aught to stay her hand, either, and then there was the other oddity: Heathcliff, who was so quick to raise a hand to Isabella, had calmed instantly when the iron horseshoe touched him, coming away from the fight as though suddenly awoken from some strange and violent trance.
Were changelings supposed to be affected by iron? Was that what had been meant by the strange pair she had met? "She is wrong," the man had said so sadly, "so wrong." They had said she was no
witch, but rather worse – could it be that they knew of this? Iron, they had said, could stop it – the horseshoe had raised a welt upon Cathy's skin, as though it were as hot as a brand.
At last Isabella spoke. "Do you know if iron makes a difference?" Her voice was quiet: she could scarcely believe she was indulging in this strange belief, but she had to ask.
Joseph and Nelly looked at each other. "I've no idea," said Nelly. "Some say iron keeps bad luck away, but people say all kinds of things."
"Ah, 'tis all fiendish superstition!" bit out Joseph. "I'll 'ave no truck wi' talk o' fairies and spirits – 'tis faith an' the Bible as shall be a guide tae us, and I shall live by't. Dinnae come tae me wi' talk o' iron and fairies when prayer an' the Good Book shall keep away tha' evil!"
Nelly and Isabella shared an uncomfortable look across the table.
"You go and read it, then, Joseph," directed Nelly, rising from her seat, "and I must be getting back to the Grange afore my absence is noted."
Isabella left her tea cold and undrunk, and fled to the bookshelves in the sitting room as soon as they were gone. An hour later, she sat amongst a pile of well-thumbed books of fairy stories, filling a second page of notes. Every reference to iron she had noted, and many had shown themselves more than once. Most crucially, she had found a book on traditions and superstitions, which detailed the practice of hanging a horseshoe over a door lintel.
"In many places," she read, "it is common practice to keep a piece of worked iron, such as a horseshoe, at the entrance to one's house. For it was oft believed, in less enlightened times, that this iron would take away the power of fairies, spirits and changeling children, keeping evil from the door. Of course, these now being rational times, such practices are rarely seen now as aught but old traditions, and the meaning behind them has been discarded."
Isabella looked at the horseshoe on its string around her neck.
Ten minutes later, Isabella strode from the stables, clutching two more horseshoes. Taking up a hammer and nails, she drove them into the lintels above the entrances to Wuthering Heights, one at the front doorway, and one at the back entrance to the kitchen.
"Now," she said to herself, feeling slightly foolish and yet oddly hopeful, "we shall see."