• The Mystery of Northanger Abbey - chapter 3


    (read chapter 2)


    Chapter 3

    A Growing Uneasiness


    The following day, Catherine felt rather tired. She did not feel like having a long walk through the grounds, so Henry suggested that they simply sit on a stone bench under a tree in order to benefit from the sunlight and the warm breeze. Catherine was very happy and touched by this sweet attention. But her strange experience from the preceeding night, as well as her dreams, or rather nightmares, kept haunting her. In broad daylight and educated company, she felt a little silly about her terror from the previous night, without yet managing to make herself completely at ease. She finally decided to try to know more about the supposed ghost she thought she had heard. As she knew that talking about the old wing was never done in the Abbey, because of Henry's mother accident, and anyway, mentioning it would be admitting to having done something forbidden, she finally asked:

    “When we were coming to Northanger Abbey, you said that the house held secrets.”

    “Did I? And have you discovered any dreadful revelation yet?”

    Catherine shuddered, but her answer was calm. “No. But I'd like to know what you meant.”

    “I think that shall have to remain a secret, miss Morland. A secret, once explained, loses all of its charms and all of its danger to him. Why don't you imagine the worst thing you can, and write your own gothic romance about it?”

    Catherine thought to herself: “Well, I'm already imagining far worst than you could imagine... But I shall not tell you about it. Let it be my secret.”

    Henry continued: “Northanger Abbey would make a very good title, do not you think?”

    “Now you are mocking me.” Catherine complained. After a pause, she added: “But I cannot help feeling that this house is not a happy one. You once said that you envy me my happy childhood. That there is no envy or jealousy between my siblings and I. I feel no such thing between you and Eleanor either. And yet, you seemed very genuine when you talked about it.”

    “Indeed, this has never really been a happy house, ever since my mother died.” He paused for a few moments, and added nostalgically: “And even before then.”

    Henry did not develop further and Catherine felt that he would not, should she even urge him to. She decided to drop the matter, but Henry spoke again: “My sister is not happy. I trust you remember Mr Charles Collins. He is a rich neighbour of the Abbey and a good friend of mine, and he is a lot more than that to my sister. But our father has refused to sanction the match. He has a very strong dislike about his father, even tho' neither Eleanor nor I could ever understand why. And yet, Eleanor must marry the heir to a rich estate.”

    “And you?” Catherine felt compelled to ask.

    “Well, if I am to retain my father's favour, I must marry a fortune too.”

    “And shall you?” She uttered faintly.

    He smiled: “I always hoped I would be lucky, and the girl I would fall in love with would come with a fortune attached.”

    “And... if she should not?”

    Henry looked perplexed for a second. Then, he replied with his usual enigmatic smile: “Then, that would be a very stern test of my character.”

    Eleanor then came with a bunch of letters, and said that she was willing to take advantage of the weather to walk to the village in order to post them. Catherine still felt too tired for such a long walk, but she also felt guilty that Henry should miss it for her sake. She insisted so much upon his accompanying his sister that he finally surrendered and went away.

    Catherine thus found herself alone and decided to explore the Abbey on her own, or at least, the authorized part of it. After all, she had entered the old wing, hoping to find the key matching the old chest, but perhaps this key was to be found in some other room. After half an hour of wandering from parlours to chambers, she arrived in the servants corridor. She knew that she should not be here and was turning away when some kind of brief shimmer caught her attention. At the other end of the corridor stood a maid. She was putting an item in her pocket. Catherine did not have much time to observe it, but it seemed to be a golden ring decorated with a huge emerald. Catherine was shocked for a moment. How could a servant possess such an item? Was it stolen? Then, she realised that only Eleanor might wear such expensive jewels in the Abbey, and she possessed nothing of the sort. At such a distance, perhaps she had been mistaken. Perhaps it was just a normal-sized ring the maid had inherited from her grand-mother or a remote uncle. Anyway, Catherine hurried away in order to make sure not to bother the servants.

    As she was heading back to the main entrance hall, she noticed a painting to which she had not particularly paid attention before. It was a portrait of the three Tilney children. The boys were teenagers and Eleanor was quite young, perhaps six or seven. They were all wearing very pretty outfits but something was strange; something was missing. The merriment. Even in formal family portraits, children are usually at least smiling, if not playing. But no, these children were only sternly posing. They even had a quite severe air on their face. They were not happy. And they were obviously beeing well-behaved, as they had probably been ordered. Suddenly, Catherine realised that this must have been drawn very shortly after their mother's death. No wonder they did not feel like smiling. And yet, it seemed to Catherine that there was more than just that to their air. Even beyond the loss of their mother, those children did not look happy.

    Catherine walked away, feeling more and more uneasy. This reminded her of several things she had been told since she had come to Northanger Abbey. And even before. Eleanor was obviously not happy–that is, except when she was with Henry or Catherine. She was not now, and she had already not been back when the painting had been made. At that time, it could have been that she simply missed her mother, but Catherine felt that it was already related to the General's tyrannical behaviour. Their attitudes on the painting were, if not a concrete proof, at least a good clue. And now, Eleanor was still unhappy, and it was definitely related to her father's tyranny. Why did he deny her the love of a very rich man? Catherine felt very sad and sorry for her friend. She wished something could be done to help her. She whished someone knew what to do. It occurred to her that this person might–should–have been her mother, this mother whose absence was so difficult to bear. But she also remembered Henry's words: “Indeed, this has never really been a happy house since my mother died. And even before then.” Indeed, would their mother, were she alive, be capable of shielding her children from their father's tyranny? Or would she rather be his prisoner herself? Was she ever happy with the General?

    Catherine felt now a very strong urge to see her portrait hanging in the General's study. She had a feeling that the expression she would discover there would be exactly the same as those of her children after her death. An expression of inside death and desolation. She knew that the General was gone to visit a neighbour this morning. He was not supposed to come back before tea. And Henry and Eleanor were gone to the village. It would certainly be a long time yet before they came back. So Catherine decided to sneak into the General's study. She had to know.

    Catherine's heart was beating very fast as she silently opened the door. Just as she had expected, everything in the room was neat and at the peak of fashion. She could not help hearing Mrs Allen's voice in her head: could she visit this room, she would probably talk about it for a year.

    The portrait was hanging on the wall above the mantlepiece. There she was. Georgiana Tilney. She was wearing a close-bodied gown made of madras. As the portrait was very tall, Catherine first spent some time watching every minute detail of the dress, which was level with her eyes. Eventually, her gaze went up and she discovered the lady's features. She was very impressed by her beauty. Indeed, Georgiana Tilney was very handsome; her face was very much like Eleanor's, but she had Henry's tender eyes. Or rather, he had her eyes. And yet, as tender as they might look, those eyes were also–and foremost–imbued with sadness. Georgiana's face was characterized by an expression of sweetness, shaded with sorrow, and tempered by resignation.[1]

    Catherine felt her eyes fill with tears and looked away. This is how she caught sight of a very old item on the General's desk. A key. A very old key! Made of rusty metal, exactly the same colour as the lock on the chest in her room. Without thinking, she took hold of it and went away. Back in her room, she rushed and opened the old chest, only to find it almost empty, except for a few worn-out sheets of paper. Feeling excited about their looking very antique, she grabbed them and took them with her on the bed, in order to read them in the natural light of this sunny day. What ancient and horrid secret was she going to discover?

    Great was then her disappointment when she realised that she was only looking at one-century-old (or so) laundry lists! Why had anybody felt the need to keep those lists? And moreover, to keep them locked away, while keeping the key in yet another room?

    Hearing the clock ring twelve and still not having heard of her friends' return, Catherine decided to wait for them in the park. She had noticed a baroque maze close to Eleanor's mother's favorite shrubbery, where she had not yet been. Since it was not very far from the house, she decided to have a look. The maze happened to be much bigger than she had expected, and she very soon lost herself. Feeling tired again, she sat on a bench to take some breath. She was starting to doze off when she was awakened by voices behind her. She instinctly turned around but could not see anyone. They were on the other side of the hedge that stood behind her. There was a man and a woman. The woman was saying that she did not have much time, that she should very soon go back to the house to make the beds. It was a maid. The man's voice then replied:

    “I am the one paying you wages so that you make those beds. If I want you to spend time with me instead, why bother to argue?” Catherine's heart beat wildly. It was the General's voice! He was not gone to a neighbour's after all...

    The maid giggled. “I always keep your gift with me, you know. I love it so much! It is both beautiful and refined. I feel like a great lady when I wear it. What a pity I can only do so when I am alone in my room.”

    “This ring is a token of my affection, but you know that we cannot let anyone know about it... or us” the General replied.

    Catherine held back an exclamation of surprise. So it really was a gorgeous ring she had seen earlier! And the General had a secret lover! Could this be the secret Henry had been talking about?

    As she hurried back towards the house, for fear of being discovered, she almost bumped into Henry who was actually looking for her. He found her in a state of agitation, but misled by his partial knowledge of the facts, misinterpreted it as mere symptoms of her lack of sleep. She did not dare contradict him and went back into the house with him. The rest of the day was spent quietly in the parlour and Catherine tried to forget about her day by absorbing herself in a novel, which she continued reading in her bed that night. It was the story of a man who slowly poisened his wife in order to then marry his mistress. She was so caught up with the story that she did not realise that the night was greatly advanced and finally dozed off.

    And suddenly, she was in the old wing again. It was dusk. She was standing by the stairs. A beautiful lady was standing next to her. The lady was wearing a chemise à la reine, a somewhat shapeless gown made of thin white muslin loosely draped around her body and fastened with a pink sash below the chest. It was the kind of gown Catherine's mother used to wear when she had met her father. That is how she understood that she was now gone around twenty years back in time. She looked at the lady's face. It was Georgiana Tilney. Something moved behind Catherine. It was the General. He passed through her as tho' she were a ghost. He looked very strict and stern. When she saw him, the lady started to talk. Catherine could not hear the words, but she seemed very upset, pointing at the General with an angry finger. The General replied quite vehemently. He was obviously trying to speak louder than her. The General became more and more passionate. He grabbed her arms and shook her, very much like he had done to Catherine in her previous dream. And suddenly, he let go. Mrs Tilney started to fall backwards, very slowly. Behind her, Catherine did not see anything but the abyss of the dark, ancient stairs. Mrs Tilney screamed as she was swallowed by the darkness. The scream echoed for a while, sounding more and more like the howling wind. And then, Catherine woke up with a start.


    [1] quoted from The Mysteries of Udolpho


    The Mystery of Northanger Abbey - chapter 3


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