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But Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman …
Writing in his diary in 1801, Lockwood describes his first days as a tenant at Thrushcross Grange, an isolated manor in thinly-populated Yorkshire. Shortly after arriving at the Grange, he pays a visit to his landlord, Mr. Heathcliff, a surly, dark man living in a manor called Wuthering Heights—"wuthering" being a local adjective used to describe the fierce and wild winds that blow during storms on the moors. During the visit, Heathcliff seems not to trust Lockwood, and leaves him alone in a room with a group of snarling dogs. Lockwood is saved from the hounds by a ruddy-cheeked housekeeper. When Heathcliff returns, Lockwood is angry, but eventually warms toward his taciturn host, and—though he hardly feels that he has been welcomed at Wuthering Heights—he volunteers to visit again the next day.
On a chilly afternoon not long after his first visit, Lockwood plans to lounge before the fire in his study, but he finds a servant dustily sweeping out the fireplace there, so instead he makes the four-mile walk to Wuthering Heights, arriving just as a light snow begins to fall. He knocks, but no one lets him in, and Joseph, an old servant who speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent, calls out from the barn that Heathcliff is not in the house. Eventually a rough-looking young man comes to let him in, and Lockwood goes into a sitting room where he finds a beautiful girl seated beside a fire. Lockwood assumes she is Heathcliff's wife. He tries to make conversation, but she responds rudely. When Heathcliff arrives, he corrects Lockwood: the young woman is his daughter-in-law. Lockwood then assumes that the young man who let him in must be Heathcliff's son. Heathcliff corrects him again. The young man, Hareton Earnshaw, is not his son, and the girl is the widow of Heathcliff's dead son.
The snowfall becomes a blizzard, and when Lockwood is ready to leave, he is forced to ask for a guide back to Thrushcross Grange. No one will help him. He takes a lantern and says that he will find his own way, promising to return with the lantern in the morning. Joseph, seeing him make his way through the snow, assumes that he is stealing the lantern, and looses the dogs on him.
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Zillah leads Lockwood to an out-of-the-way room from which Heathcliff has forbidden all visitors. He notices that someone has scratched words into the paint on the ledge by the bed. Three names are inscribed there repeatedly: Catherine Earnshaw,Catherine Linton, and Catherine Heathcliff. He also finds a diary written approximately twenty-five years earlier. Apparently the diary belonged to Catherine Earnshaw, and Lockwood reads an entry that describes a day at Wuthering Heights shortly after her father died, during which her cruel older brother Hindley forces her and Heathcliff to endure Joseph's tedious sermons. Catherine and Heathcliff seem to have been very close, and Hindley seems to have hated Heathcliff. The diary even describes Hindley telling his wife, Frances, to pull the boy's hair.
Lockwood falls asleep and enters into a pair of nightmares. He awakes from the second when the cone from a fir branch begins tapping on his window. Still half asleep, he attempts to break off the branch by forcing his hand through the window glass. But instead of a branch, he finds a ghostly hand, which seizes his own, and a voice, sobbing the name Catherine Linton, demands to be let in. To free himself, Lockwood rubs the ghost's wrist on the broken glass until blood covers the bed sheets. The ghost releases him, and Lockwood tries to cover the hole in the window with a pile of books. But the books begin to fall, and he cries out in terror. Heathcliff rushes into the room, and Lockwood cries out that the room is haunted. Heathcliff curses him, but, as Lockwood flees from the room, Heathcliff cries out to Catherine, begging her to return. There are no signs that the ghost was ever at the window. In the morning, Heathcliff treats his daughter-in-law cruelly. He later escorts Lockwood home, where the servants, who believed their master dead in the storm, receive him with joy. Lockwood, however, retreats into his study to escape human company.
Having rejected human contact the day before, Lockwood now becomes lonely. When his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, brings him his supper, he bids her sit and tell him the history of the people at Wuthering Heights. She attempts to clarify the family relationships, explaining that the young Catherine whom Lockwood met at Wuthering Heights is the daughter of the Catherine who was Nelly's first mistress at Wuthering Heights, and that Hareton Earnshaw is young Catherine's cousin, the nephew of the first Catherine's mother. The first Catherine was the daughter of Mr. Earnshaw, the late proprietor of Wuthering Heights. Now young Catherine is the last of the Lintons, and Hareton is the last of the Earnshaws. Nelly says that she grew up as a servant at Wuthering Heights, alongside Catherine and her brother Hindley, Mr. Earnshaw's children.
Nelly continues by telling the story of her early years at Wuthering Heights. When Catherine and Hindley are young children, Mr. Earnshaw takes a trip to Liverpool and returns home with a scraggly orphan whom the Earnshaws christen "Heathcliff." Mr. Earnshaw announces that Heathcliff will be raised as a member of the family. Both Catherine and Hindley resent Heathcliff at first, but Catherine quickly grows to love him. Catherine and Heathcliff become inseparable, and Hindley, who continues to treat Heathcliff cruelly, falls into disfavor with his family. Mrs. Earnshaw continues to distrust Heathcliff, but Mr. Earnshaw comes to love the boy more than his own son. When Mrs. Earnshaw dies only two years after Heathcliff's arrival at Wuthering Heights, Hindley is essentially left without an ally.
Time passes, and Mr. Earnshaw grows frail and weak. Disgusted by the conflict between Heathcliff and Hindley, he sends Hindley away to college. Joseph's fanatical religious beliefs appeal to Mr. Earnshaw as he nears the end of his life, and the old servant exerts more and more sway over his master. Soon, however, Mr. Earnshaw dies, and it is now Catherine and Heathcliff who turn to religion for comfort. They discuss the idea of heaven while awaiting the return of Hindley, who will now be master of Wuthering Heights.