The Mystery of Northanger Abbey - chapter 2
Eleanor rode in the chaise-and-four with the General, while Henry and Catherine rode together in the curricle. Frederick had decided to stay in Bath before he was to join his regiment. After a few hours of quiet travel, Henry exclaimed:
“Now! Look there!”
Catherine turned her head towards the direction he was pointing at, and there it was. Northanger Abbey. She was instantly awe-struck at the sight of so spectacular a building. Like Udolpho, it was made of grey stones and looked very antique and melancholy. Tho' it had been a monastic building, the battlements on top of the high walls made it look like a fortress from another time. “Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign.” Catherine remembered by heart from her book.
“It is exactly as I imagined” she said. “It is just like what we read about.”
“Ah yes, novels. Are you prepared, then, to encounter all of its horrors?” was Henry's amused reply.
“Horrors? Is Northanger haunted then?” cried Catherine, somewhat bemused.
“Well, that is the least of it. Dungeons and sliding panels, skeletons, strange, unearthly cries in the night that pierce your very soul.”
“And vampires? Do not say vampires. I could bear anything, but not vampires!”
Henry laughed, obviously gently mocking her. Becoming serious again, he added: “Well, I have to say, there is a kind of vampirism. No, let us just say that all houses have their secrets, and Northanger is no exception.”
By then, they had arrived in front of the main entrance. Henry helped Catherine alight from the carriage and they joined Eleanor and the General on the first steps.
“Welcome to Northanger Abbey, miss Morland!” exclaimed the General. “As you can see, it is but a modest country house. It was bought by our family under the reign of queen Elizabeth, and has been improved here and there since. As you will see when Eleanor shows you the house, the Western and Eastern wings date back to the 14th century. The Southern wing, at the foot of which we are standing, was added by my father. It is very modern inside, but he insisted on using the same style as the rest of the buildings for the outside parts.” He paused to let Catherine note the details of the impressive wall. “And to finish with, the Northern wing, on the opposite side of the building, is very ancient. It dates from the 12th century and used to be the monks' refectory and dormitory. You will not, though, have the possibility to see it, for it is a very old and dangerous place. My wife and I used to have our appartments there, but she died of an accident in the stairs which are very old. I have moved to the modern wing since, and have allowed no one to go there, for fear of losing another member of this family...” Henry and Eleanor glanced at each other with embarassed looks. Catherine assumed that they were ashamed of the very detached tone in which the General talked about their deceased mother. The General added: “Well, dinner will be served very soon. Let us all go to our rooms and meet in the hall at five o'clock.”
The group then dispersed. Eleanor shewed Catherine to her room, which was on the first story of the Eastern wing. It was vast and very modern indeed. It had been decorated with taste, perhaps a decade ago, no doubt by the General himself. Only one piece of furniture stood out. It was the very old wooden chest at the foot of the bed. It must have been brought there from the old wing, perhaps as a souvenir. Catherine tried to open it but it was locked. She looked for the key in every drawer, every corner of the room and under every single chair, bed and cupboard, but could not find it anywhere. What a shame! She would have loved so much to fold her gowns inside and pretend she was Emily arriving at Udolpho. Altho' she was delighted with the presence of the medieval chest, Catherine regretted not to have been given a more antique and gloomy room, as she felt certain there must be a lot of, especially in the restricted old wing.
She made sure to be in the hall a few minutes before five, for fear of irritating the General. Dinner was taken in the immense dining room, on whose mantlepiece the family motto was written in latin: fortis cadere, cedere non potest. “The brave may fall, but cannot yield” Henry translated in a whisper between two spoons of soup. Between dinner and tea, the brother and sister shewed the rest of the house to Catherine. Every room was bigger than the preceeding one, and every piece of furniture was huge, modern and fashionable at once. Catherine was also very impressed by the number of staff in the house. In addition to the butler, the housekeeper, the cook and her aid, she saw many maids and footmen, and felt quite sure that she had not seen them all yet. After tea, they spent the evening in the drawing-room, playing sharades about the names of characters and places of Catherine and Eleanor's favorite novels.
The next morning, the three young persons took a long walk in the park, right after breakfast. The girls, once again, started to discuss what novel they would read next. After a few moments, Catherine turned to Henry and said:
“I see how you look at us. You must find us very silly to talk about fictional characters all day.”
“Not at all, my dear miss Morland. Indeed, you are greatly mistaken. I may be bound to become a man of God, but I do not believe that the Gospels only are worth reading. It is my opinion that the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days--my hair standing on end the whole time. Actually, I do believe that novels are very good for education.”
“Really? I am afraid I fail to understand why. After all, there are not so many murderers and bad persons in the real world as there are in novels.”
“Perhaps not so many murders and abductions... But broken hearts? Betrayals? Long-held grudges, schemes of revenge... Fear, hatred and dispair; are they not all part of our lives?”
“I don't know, I'd like to think not.”
“Well, then, I hope your expense of life is the exception that proves the rule. But let me assure you that there are more bad persons in the real world than there were in the world you grew up in. I do envy you your happy childhood, Miss Morland. You told me that your parents loved each other very much, and loved all of their children very much as well. I hear neither grievance nor envy when you talk about your siblings. And yet, such families are extremely rare in our world. Your education made you a very naive young lady, who may not be prepared to encounter real families from the real world. But thanks to your horrid novels, you now have a pretty good insight of what human nature can be like, according to the circumstances. That is why, in my opinion, there can be no such thing as reading too many novels.”
“What an inspiring speech indeed, Mr Tilney!” Catherine exclaimed. “I cannot wait to hear you talk about the Gospels in your own parish if you put only half as much fervour in it.”
“Thank you very much, Miss Morland. I do hope you will have such an opportunity, one day” he answered, addressing an enigmatic smile to his sister.
A servant then came to say that a visitor was waiting for Mr Henry in the parlour. Henry went back to the house with him and Catherine stayed alone with Eleanor. They turned to their right and entered a rather melancholy shrubbery.
“This was my mother's favorite place.” said Eleanor. “I used to walk so often here with her. Tho' I never loved it then as I have loved it since.”
“Her death must have been a great affliction” Catherine replied quite feelingly.
“A great and increasing one.”
“What was she like? Did she look like you?”
“I wish I could show you her portrait, but it hangs in my father's study.”
“Were you very young when she passed away?”
“Yes, very. It happened seventeen years ago. I was only five. Henry was nine, and Frederick eleven.”
“It must have been very hard. For all of you. I cannot imagine such a pain and I thank God that my parents are still both alive and in good health.”
“What was very hard to me, was that I never was allowed to see her body. It may sound silly, or even sick, but I deeply regret not having been given an opportunity to say properly good-bye.”
“It does not sound silly or sick to me. I think I would feel the same.”
“Yes. Perhaps it could help me think of her at peace.”
Those last words, as well as the whole conversation, particularly struck Catherine. “To think of her at peace”. “Never allowed to see her body”. She could not help thinking that something was very odd about Eleanor's mother's death, as Isabella had once told her. Had she been so wrong about it, after all? Be it in Bath or at the Abbey, Henry and Eleanor's mother was never really mentionned among the family, and when she happened to be, it was always wrapped in some kind of strange melancholy. As if some words were not spoken. Important words. Catherine also remembered the time Henry had mentionned his mother's telling him about Frederick's tantrums as a child. His face definitely bore the same kind of suppressed melancholy as Eleanor's just had.
During the rest of the day, one thing was constantly on Catherine's mind. The old wing. It represented all she had dreamed of finding in Northanger Abbey, and she was denied the very sight of it! How sad! And she felt so sure that the key to her chest must have been forgotten there that she could less and less refrain from having a look at it. At last, she decided to sneak in there at night. She waited for everybody to be fast asleep and tiptoed in the corridor with a candlestick. She had to be very careful and move slowly because the wooden floor was very old and kept creaking under her feet. Fortunately, the door at the end of the corridor onto which her room opened led directly into the old wing. Eleanor had told her so herself. After a yet rather long time, she finally pushed the wooden door and entered the old wing.
Of course, she could not see anything, apart from the air a few inches around her candle. She stopped and stood there for a few moments, in order to enable her eyes to get used to the darkness. After a minute or so, she started making out a few things. The windows, through which dilapidated shutters a few moonlight rays shone. A very huge cupboard, as big as a monster. The guardrail of the corridor, which seemed to encircle a vast hall. Putting one hand on the guardrail, she started to move forward. After a few steps, she froze again. She had heard a noise. A strange noise. It sounded like the wind howling, but she could feel no air. She waited. Nothing happened. She was starting to move again when she heard another sound. It was much less loud, and sounded like sobs. Was someone there? She listened again carefully, trying not to breath.
All of a sudden, there was a huge howl, coming out of nowhere. She started and her heart missed a beat. Frightened and panicked, she ran at once, as fast as she could, and only stopped when she had closed the door of her own room. Panting, sweating, she tried to compose herself and to understand what had happened. What was that sound? Was it the wind, or the howl of an animal? She wondered whether it did not sound a little human. And was it related to the sobs? Or perhaps she had imagined the sobs. Perhaps she had been reading too many novels, lately, whatever Henry said about it. She went to bed and tried to sleep, altho' for a very long time, she could not help wondering wether ghosts actually existed. After all, Henry had talked about a kind of vampirism!
Understandably, Catherine spent a very troubled night. Not until very late could she find sleep, and when she did, it was filled with nightmares. At first, she found herself alone in the shrubbery, in broad daylight. Blinking into the distance, she noticed several persons at the end of the path. As she moved forward, she made out the figures of Henry, Eleanor, Frederick and the General. They were all looking very sad. They were standing around a wooden box. Actually, it was not a box, it was a coffin. It was closed. Catherine knew who was inside. She looked towards Eleanor and her friend begged her “Please, Catherine. I need to see her.”. As she made toward the coffin to open it, the General threw himself in her way. He violently grabbed her wrists and shook her. Henry looked at them and to Catherine's surprise, very calmly said “Please, Catherine. You have to stop”. And suddenly, she found herself in the old wing, surrounded by howling white figures. The ghosts rushed towards her and passed through her as if they had no substance. She was frightened to death and curled up on the floor to protect herself. After a moment, she realised that she was screaming, but she had not noticed it before because her voice had been covered by those of the ethereal creatures.
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