Chapter Six: Motherless Children
by Ivy Rangee
"Hareton," shouted Heathcliff, from the landing of the backstairs. "Have you changed your clothes yet?"
"Nay," called Hareton, his voice barely audible.
"Then do so and come down! It's time to milk Angelina."
With an impatient growl, Heathcliff settled on the third step above the landing; resting his back against the wall, he stretched his legs so his boots touched the banister opposite. How many times had he and Cathy played on this dark, dusty landing? Rarely used, it had been a perfect hideaway with its steeply gabled walls and gaudy banister. The two children had tacked cloth along the railing, making a castle where they might take shelter from the human storms that regularly raged over the Heights.
"Heathcliff!" shouted Hareton, his voiced filled with panic. "Come."
"What is it, Hareton?" asked Heathcliff, rising quickly and climbing the stairs two at a time to the back hallway.
"Help!" shouted the boy.
"Is it Hindley?"
"'Tis the cat."
"What have you done now?" grumbled Heathcliff, frustration clear in his voice. At the word cat, he'd slowed to a walk, making his way down the long, narrow corridor to Hareton's bedroom.
"I'm beginning to regret entrusting that cat to your care." Standing with his arms crossed in the boy's doorway, Heathcliff suppressed a smile for behind the clothes press shivered a tiny calico kitten, looking for all the world like a drowned rat; yet it bravely held its paw in a defensive stance ready to scratch without mercy. "How many times must I remind you that cats detest water?"
"I must be part cat," said the boy.
"Indeed, thus you should understand." Heathcliff looked about the room; Hareton's wash basin sat upon the floor surrounded by a puddle of water. "Do you have a towel?"
"Nay, but I have this," said Hareton, handing Heathcliff a clean shirt.
"Hareton! I paid Oisin's mother to wash and press this. It is not to be used as a cat towel," scolded Heathcliff, grabbing the shirt as he got to his knees.
"Too late," smirked Hareton, crossing his arms defiantly.
"You are too rough with the kitten. Watch what I do, and imitate me."
Heathcliff made little mewling sounds as, on his knees, he inched toward the kitten who in turn dropped her paw and tottered toward him. Picking her up, Heathcliff wrapped her in Hareton's shirt, afterward holding the terrified beast to his chest to warm her.
"What possessed you to wash the cat yet again?" demanded Heathcliff.
"She got dirty."
"Since when has that been a problem for you?"
"I'm her guardian; 'tis my duty to look after her." Hareton held out his hands for the beleaguered kitten who cowered in Heathcliff's arms.
"Have you named her?" asked Heathcliff, gently rubbing her dry.
"Well then, there's no time to lose."
"What about Little Abe?" asked the boy as he watched Heathcliff intently.
"Little Abe? Is that not a boy's name? How about Lucinda? Or Juliet seems a good moniker for a mouser."
"I say Little Abe." With an imperious expression, the boy stood, feet apart, arms akimbo as Heathcliff stared transfixed. In this moment, Hareton resembled Cathy to a striking degree.
"Why not?" said Heathcliff, looking away with effort. "Little Abe it is. Now, do you see how I hold her and gently rub her dry? That is how you must treat her. You are too harsh; she is still only a very young kitten."
"But I want to play with her!" whined Hareton, frowning. He kneeled and brought his face close to Little Abe's who turned, hiding her face in Heathcliff's armpit.
"In a few weeks she'll be ready to roughhouse with you," explained Heathcliff as the cat retreated up his shirt. "She is too young for that now. Will you do as I've shown you?"
"Is it not your wish to learn how to care for animals?"
"Then you must listen to me." By this time Little Abe had clawed her way up Heathcliff's shirt to perch upon his shoulder, snuggling down at the back of his collar even as she commenced chewing on his hair.
"She loves ye; she hates me! Why?" demanded the dour Hareton. He stood and paced to the window.
"Because you are too rough with her; treat her appropriately and she will be your servant."
"Appropa … what?"
"Little Abe is a very young kitten; young kittens must be held gently. Not shaken about, dangled out windows, or held in water."
"Somethin' must be wrong with her!"
"No, she is acting like any young kitten."
"She'll play proper when she's grown some?" demanded the boy.
"I believe I have repeated that at least one hundred times!" Heathcliff wondered how children survived childhood, given the patience required of the adults who raise them.
"Ye take her 'til she's growed."
"The word is grown. And no, by then she will be my cat. It is you who must care for her, and you must do so as a mother would, so she will be loyal to you."
"And how do ye 'spect me to do that?" asked Hareton, stomping his foot in anger.
Heathcliff realized his blunder. After all, neither he nor Hareton had much experience with mothering. How did the old song go? Nobody on Earth can take a mother's place when the mother is gone.
"If you observe mothers with their children you will learn," said Heathcliff, attempting to explain something of which he had little firsthand knowledge. "Think of Oisin's mother when we brought him home. How she took him upon her lap and hugged him. Remember? Then she cleaned him up and fed him, but not harshly; she used only the lightest touch, bringing forth his laughter as she cared for him."
Hareton stared at Heathcliff. With his lower lip pushed forward in an angry pout, another stabbing reminder of Cathy, the child looked on the verge of a tearful rage. Intently returning the child's glare, Heathcliff considered whether to go harsh or gentle; he understood how Hareton felt. It is a hard world for motherless children; watching the loving interactions between Oisin and his mother would arouse anger, sorrow and jealousy in one who longed for it. Of this Heathcliff did have firsthand knowledge.
"Since you and I are members of the same unhappy club, we both know that, poor as he is, Oisin is a lucky lad. But, though we lack what he has, that does not mean we cannot learn a mother's ways. Tell me when you look at Little Abe what do you see?"
Hareton went to Heathcliff and took a seat on the floor beside him, resting his head against Heathcliff's arm. With a frown, the boy rubbed his eyes, seemingly deep in thought.
"A ball of fur with big gold eyes."
"What else?" asked Heathcliff.
"Soft…tottering, like Oisin's baby sister."
"How does it make you feel?"
"I do na know…funny…kinda sick."
Heathcliff understood. "Do you love anyone, Hareton?"
"Not a soul?" demanded Heathcliff, somewhat hurt.
"Well maybe a little."
Puzzled, Heathcliff eyed the boy. "The cow?"
"What other Angelina is there?"
"Undoubtedly there are many," said Heathcliff, with a weary smile. "Here is my advice, as one who has preceded you down this lonely path. When you feel funny and sick pick up your kitten and pet her - gently. You will feel better. Treat her well now, and she will be your companion later; not to mention a reliable mouser."
"I will try it," said Hareton, his chin quivering.
"Are you crying?"
"Nay, I just feel sick and funny, like I said. Gimme Little Abe."
Lifting her gingerly from where she hid entangled in his hair, Heathcliff handed the kitten to Hareton. Now dry, she was a ball of multicolored fluff with two enormous, innocent golden eyes. Heathcliff watched as Hareton unsuccessfully attempted to pet her gently while she tried to escape the boy's clumsy grasp. But Hareton persisted, and, after a short protest, Little Abe settled into his arms and collapsed in sleep. Hareton looked up to Heathcliff, happiness and amazement clear on his young face.
"Well done, but be ever watchful. Cats are inscrutable," said Heathcliff, his tone that of a stern instructor.
"'Tis not so hard." Hareton stood and carried Little Abe to a narrow closet where within lay Little Abe's carefully constructed sleeping nest. Hareton and Heathcliff had taken this step in order to keep her hidden from Hindley.
"You had better put on your milking clothes; Angelina must be fit to burst."
Walking to the clothes press, Hareton rummaged through it, finally pulling out a work shirt and pants. He threw the rough garments into the air, catching them as he made his way toward his bed, and he sang as he went.
"Red roof on a green hill top,
A bell tower shaped like a pixie hat.
The bell rings, ding-dong-ding
Heathcliff observed the boy; when Hareton's heart was not burdened by Hindley's drunken madness, he resembled Cathy to a remarkable degree. And now he even sounded like her. How many times had Heathcliff run across the moor with Cathy trailing him, the two chanting that same rhyme? What he would give to return to those days.
"Ye art lookin' at me funny! Do na watch me!" ordered Hareton, unbuttoning his vest.
"As you wish," said Heathcliff. "I'll wait for you outside."
"Nay, Heathcliff. Do na leave; just turn away."
Heathcliff made for the door. "I have things to do; it is the waxing gibbous moon and I …"
"Please wait," begged the boy.
"There's things I must ask ye?"
"Speak up then."
"Why do ye help those people?"
"Of what people do you speak, Hareton?" Knowing very well what people, Heathcliff leaned against the door-surround his arms crossed against the tedious obsessive question. By this time Little Abe had awoken and took Heathcliff's idleness as opportunity to crawl clumsily up his pant leg, mewling all the way. Once she reached his shirt, she stretch out along the length of his forearm; gazing up at him adoringly with her bright golden eyes; she vibrated, purring loudly. "You belong to the boy," he whispered; she seemed to frown in response.
"Oisin and his mother … and Fin Ward, too."
"I've done nothing to help them."
"Don't lie! I hate liars!"
"Me? Lie? Never. I take pride in my reputation for brutal honesty," replied Heathcliff, lightly scratching Little Abe's soft furry head. "All I have done is strictly for my own ends; if I aided Mister Ward and Mister Oisin as a result, it was an unintended consequence."
"Ye did promise never to lie."
"I have not broken my oath. By lucky happenstance I coveted the land where Oisin's mother rents. It was her further good luck that Hindley needed cash. Indeed the stars must have aligned in her favor to a remarkable degree, for as it turned out, your father, in a rare bit of luck, had won that piece of land in a game of chance. Hence the plot is not part of the fee-tail property. Thus unencumbered by legal complications, I bought it outright."
"But ye do treat them good!" said the indignant boy.
"It's 'does not'. And why would I ever model my behavior on his?" sighed Heathcliff, growing tired of the interrogation.
"Ye did fix their cottage!" shouted Hareton as if he exposed a great sin.
"As a local landlord it is of the utmost importance that I gain a good reputation. I learned that from your grandfather and namesake, Hareton."
"Get a good repu'tion?" asked Hareton.
""Reputation. In order to charge higher rents. What other reason is there?"
"But Oisin's ma does na pay ye."
"Indeed, she does. She washes and presses all our laundry."
"But that's not payin'," said Hareton. He sounded like an attorney resting his case.
"How did you arrive at that?"
"Washin' clothes is easy."
"Is that so?" asked Heathcliff, with a smirk.
"Have you ever done such work?"
"Nay! 'Tis the duty of women folk. How hard could it be?"
"I think you should answer that for yourself, Hareton. Next week when you deliver the laundry to Oisin's mother, I shall arrange matters so you may stay for the day to help with the wash. Someday you might have to care for your own clothing as I did on my travels. Then too you will find out the truth of how easy such work is. Are you dressed yet?"
"Well, what in hell are you doing?" demanded Heathcliff, overcome by an intense wave of impatience. The child's dawdling felt like an anchor pulling him down.
"Why do ye cradle Little Abe so?" asked Hareton, who appeared at Heathcliff's side without warning.
"She climbed my pant leg, and demanded my attention."
"Let's take her to the barn."
"As you wish, but you must return her to her nest before we leave for the churchyard."
"The kirkyard? Why?" whined Hareton.
"So your father does not find her."
"No, why do we go to the kirkyard? I hate that place."
"To visit your Aunt Cathy's grave."
Hareton glared at up at Heathcliff. "Ye are weird."
"So I've been told," said Heathcliff. "Are we still friends?"
"'Course. Ye fit right in at the Heights. Give me Little Abe."
Unable to suppress a smile, Heathcliff returned the cat to its master, afterward standing aside and waving the boy out the door. He felt oppressed and couldn't wait to get into the open air; looking after this boy tested him in every way. But the child was Cathy's nephew and Old Earnshaw's grandson. Debts had been incurred; payment had come due.
Passing Hareton, Heathcliff ran down the steps, and out the back door, inhaling the cool, evening air with relief. The outdoors always lifted his burdens. With all Hareton's dilly-dallying, the sun now rested low on the horizon, striping the sky in purples, reds and yellows. In the valley, the churchyard would already be deep in shadows. They would have to wait until the moon rose to visit Cathy's grave, but perhaps that would be for the best.
Following Heathcliff, Hareton stepped outside with Little Abe balanced precariously on his shoulder. The young boy walked to his protector, and, cautiously sidling up to him, slipped his small hand into Heathcliff's. Normally Heathcliff would shake off such familiarity, but this evening he let it go for Cathy's sake. For a few moments, the two shared the sinking of the sun beneath the greening hills just as Heathcliff and Cathy once had an eternity or two ago. Duty broke nature's spell when Angelina bellowed pitifully, unceremoniously interrupting their reverie.
"That cow's in pain and she won't milk herself," declared Heathcliff, slipping free of the boy's grip.
"What are ye waitin' for then?" demanded the ever-surly Hareton. "Standin' 'bout moonin' at the sunset." In his imitation of Joseph, the boy giggled with delight. "Do ye get it? Moonin' at the sun." The child doubled up with laughter.
"What do you call that?" asked Heathcliff, crossing his arms and gazing down at the boy.
"Do ye never laugh?" demanded Hareton.
"Of course I do. You've seen me."
"I've seen ye smile at the odd comment. If ye can call it a smile; it's more like a sneer gone wrong."
"Are you taking me to task?"
"Ye are no judge of what is funny; that is clear."
"I suggest we take that jest to Mister Oisin and Mister Finn. If they find it humorous I stand corrected."
At that the poor cow wailed once more.
"Get the lantern, Hareton, before Angelina expires."
For once Hareton promptly did as directed, and the two made their way to the cowshed where the boy hung the lantern on a hook just outside the cow's stall. It cast a soft, intimate, circular glow leaving the corners of the shed in total darkness. Angelina stomped her hooves, obviously in great distress while the boy retrieved the milking stool and bucket. Opening the gate, he entered the stall, cautiously placing the milking stool beside the anxious cow.
"Don't be afraid, boy. She'll sense it."
"I don't want to get my foot stomped, again," protested Hareton, carefully placing the bucket beneath the cow's udders; afterward, sitting down gingerly, he grabbed her teats and wrenched. The unhappy cow let forth an almost human scream, pushing the boy against the half wall of the stall.
"Have you learned nothing?" asked Heathcliff, his tone severe.
"Help me, Heathcliff, she's got me wedged tighter than an egg in a hen's butt."
"You have gotten what you deserve," admonished Heathcliff with a smile at the child's colorful description. Turning to Angelina, Heathcliff rubbed her ears. "Did the mean boy pull your sensitive udders as if he yanked a dandelion weed from the field? There, there, now, he's not the total idiot he seems; he will learn." Then, running his hand gently down her muzzle, he whispered sweet nothings in her ear, comforting the desperate cow. In response the poor animal nuzzled his chest as he maneuvered her back to the middle of her stall. "Now try again, Hareton. Gently. And warm your hands."
"Why'd ye tear me down before Angelina?" demanded Hareton as, rubbing his hands together, he tried once more. This time he managed to extract milk.
"I had to sooth her, so I commiserated with her."
"Com-mis-er-ate. Agreeing with her about you."
"Why is she so touchy?"
"You made her wait too long. Never make a milk cow wait past milking time. They will become ill after which their milk will dry up."
"How do they make milk, Heathcliff?"
"They produce it for their calves." Heathcliff moved beside the boy so he could observe the child's technique more closely. "Just as human mothers do for their babies."
"Did my mother make milk for me?"
"Ask your father."
"Ye were there."
"I was, but I was not privy to your mother's milk making abilities."
"It is a matter that women hold close. But, by logical extension, she must have."
"You are a fine, strong child, and it is said that such qualities are determined at the mother's breast."
"Oh," said Hareton, looking up at Heathcliff. "Then yer mother must o' had very fine milk."
Heathcliff eyed the boy; he'd only made the comment to comfort the child. But Hareton spoke the truth. Indeed, Heathcliff did have a remarkable constitution; he'd survived illnesses and deprivations that had been the demise of others. Had this been a gift from his lost mother's milk?
"Watch what you are doing, Hareton!" demanded Heathcliff. Talk of his mother infuriated Heathcliff, though he did not know why. "Damn it, boy, the earth is saturated with milk yet there is barely a drop in the bucket."
"When will you tell the rest of the story about Hedatiwi and your travels?" asked Hareton. Impervious to criticism, he happily grasped the cow's teats, this time squirting milk directly into the wooden bucket.
"I cannot continue the story without Mister Oisin and Mister Finn. It would not be fair," said Heathcliff, watching the boy. "You're pulling too hard; you must gently cajole Angelina, tickling the milk out, otherwise it won't taste sweet. Warm, gentle, knowing hands. And singing helps."
"I know no songs; Joseph forbids all but church chants and I hate those."
"You seem to hate a great many things. But you do know a song for I heard you sing it while you changed."
"That counts for a song?" asked Hareton.
"It does, and you are in luck for I allow no church chants." Heathcliff smiled smugly. "Have no fear; I shall teach you the best of my cow milking repertoire."
"The songs that bring forth plentiful, sweet milk from our sister, Mistress Cow."
The boy released the cow's udders, bringing his hands together as if in prayer and then rubbing them together.
"That's it; keep your hands toasty warm. She likes that; remember a cow is like a woman. Gentle, easy treatment does the trick."
Hareton stared blankly at Heathcliff. "How's that?"
"What do you mean?"
"That's not how you treated Aunt Isabella."
Heathcliff gave the boy a sour look. "She is a special case."
Now it was Hareton's turn to look sour, "How will I ever know how to milk Angelina if I never see a woman gentled."
"Forgive me, Hareton; the Heights is like an army barracks. We should find a housekeeper so you may have the experience of a woman in your life."
"Will you gentle her, Heathcliff?"
Swallowing laughter, Heathcliff coughed, turning away from the child to hide his smile. "The damndest things come forth from your mouth, child."
"Why would a woman stay here?" grumbled Hareton. "Even Aunt Catherine left. Why did she marry that damnable twit, Linton?"
"Do you remember your Aunt Catherine?"
"Nay…My hands ache."
"Rest a minute; then begin again. You will grow stronger the more you milk. That is another positive aspect."
"I thought t'would be easier."
"Have you gained respect for those who gather your food?" asked Heathcliff.
Hareton frowned at Heathcliff for a moment and then recommenced his efforts. "Why did ye help them?"
"Oisin and his mother, damn it!"
Heathcliff ignored this millionth iteration of the question. "Little Abe wants refreshment. Do you remember how to give her a squirt as I have shown you?"
Hareton aimed at the cat, but, instead of her mouth, he got her square between the eyes. She mewled and tottered to one side. "How do ye do that Heathcliff? Yer aim is flawless."
"Boredom and years of practice. Try again, but this time do not bend her teat so acutely."
Hareton tried once more, but hit Little Abe's gold and white ear. "Bloody hell," cursed the boy, squinting at the cat as he aimed carefully taking another shot. This time it was a direct hit. "I did it. Did ye see it, Heathcliff?""
"Well done, but don't get cocky. Now finish up; after dinner we are going to visit your Aunt Cathy's grave."
"Are ye sure ye want to go to the kirkyard at night?"
"Are you afraid, Hareton?"
"Have you ever been to your aunt's gravesite?"
"And why is that?"
"I don't know. Ask Hindley."
"Ask Hindley what?" demanded Hindley Earnshaw, standing just outside the circle of light. "Call me father, boy. What in hell are you doing?"
"I'm milking a cow," growled Hareton. "Are ye blind as well as mad?"
"You may not speak to me that way, Hareton!" Hindley staggered a little even as he tried to sound stern. "That activity is beneath your station."
"Leave him alone, Hindley. Every child wants to learn to milk a cow – except for you, that is. Your father was terrified of cows. Did you know that, Hareton? He thought they'd trample him."
"'Tis not surprising. He's a damnable twit," declared Hareton, continuing to milk. "So they probably would've stomped him."
"Yes, Hareton, they smell fear," declared Heathcliff.
"You are the devil incarnate; now you have turned my son against me," shouted Hindley, wavering with the effort. He was inebriated, but not completely befuddled.
"I turned him against you?" chuckled Heathcliff.
"Yes, Cuckoo," smirked Hindley as he steadied himself against a post. "And now you make him into your slave."
"Do not call me that infernal epithet ever again or you will regret it," ordered Heathcliff, advancing on his childhood enemy, who backed away until Angelina's stall barred any further retreat. "And if you are curious about who turned Hareton against you look in a mirror. All I have done is teach him to be self sufficient so he won't be utterly useless like you, Linton and the rest of your frivolous class."
"Leave the Heights at once!" shouted Hindley, staggering forward and fumbling in his long coat.
"Nay, Hindley!" shouted Hareton. "Nay!"
"You wish to send me away?" Heathcliff touched the boy's shoulder, signaling the child to remain silent.
"Go! Or I'll have my brother-in-law the magistrate on you!" threatened Hindley, still fumbling in his coat.
"Magistrate Linton? Nothing would please me more. But the consensus in Gimmerton has him hiding in his study. Guilt, no doubt."
"Get out! You demon bastard! I fucking hate you!"
"Fine, Hindley, but first pay me what you owe."
"Nay, Heathcliff, nay do not leave," begged Hareton, taking up Little Abe, and hugging her to him.
"Shut up, Hareton, and where the hell did you get that hideous grimalkin?" asked Hindley, reaching down and sweeping Little Abe from Hareton's arms.
"She's mine! Let her be!" screamed Hareton. "If ye kill this one, ye will pay." Little Abe mewled, wriggling wildly to free herself.
Hindley laughed at the boy as with great difficulty he pulled his knife from the pocket of his great, riding coat. "What shall I cut first? You know I think you'd look better without ears?"
"Nay! Hindley. Ye mustn't." Hareton leaped at his father, trying to save the mewling kitten.
"Ask nicely, and call me father, boy, or I shall cut out her eyes and eat them for supper."
"Please father," wept Hareton. "Give her back."
"We do not have pets here at the Heights. They are a waste of food. I condemn her to death." Hindley held the knife to the tiny cat's throat.
"Nay, father, nay," gulped the young boy, grabbing his father's arm and dangling from it. "She's a mouser, father, born and bred. We've mice in the pantry. She will work for her keep."
"I've never seen any mice," said Hindley. "You're a liar, boy."
"Nay, father, I speak the truth. One drowned in the milk."
As the two fought, Heathcliff took Hindley from behind. With one arm around the drunken man's neck, he twisted the hand which held Little Abe until Hindley released her. She fell to the hay-covered floor as Hareton swooped down to pick her up, retreating to the Angelina's stall where he dipped his fingers in milk, letting the squealing cat lick them clean.
"Still a coward, eh Hindley? Always picking on those weaker than you. Let the boy alone, your grievance is with me. Now about my money."
What money?" demanded Hindley, waving dismissively at Heathcliff, who in return smirked - ominously.
"What money. Do you hear that, boy?" said Heathcliff, gazing at the intoxicated man with hard, glittering eyes. "Hareton, saddle your pony and fetch Solicitor Green; have him bring the financial contracts between your father and I. That should remind you, Hindley, of the rather substantial amount you owe me, which, as you know, I may call due at any time. And Hareton, you had better take Little Abe with you. "
"Stay where you are Hareton, or I'll put that fur ball to bed with a shovel," said Hindley, waving his knife. "I let you stay, Cuckoo, for the favor I owed you, but you have used my good nature to entangle me in debt. You are a dishonorable, thieving gypsy; therefore, I owe you nothing."
"The law is the law, Hindley, even you cannot break a contract," said Heathcliff, folding his arms as Hindley waved his knife about. "You signed away the Heights to me until such time as you can make restitution."
"You think by stealing the Heights you can reclaim Catherine. But she's dead, the result of your gloomy presence. You are to blame…"
"Hareton, take the milk to the kitchen and then go to your room," ordered Heathcliff. "Your father and I have serious matters to discuss."
"Stay where you are, Hareton," growled Hindley, staring at Heathcliff, who returned his gaze.
That young boy looked from one to the other, and then, with little Abe stuffed safely in his shirt, he picked up the bucket of milk and lugged in it to the house.
"Hareton!" shouted Hindley. "Get back here!" But Hareton did not look back.
"You've lost him," said Heathcliff. "But then you never deserved him."