The Mystery of Northanger Abbey - chapter 4
A Decisive Discovery
Catherine felt very weak in the morning. She could barely stand up and it was insisted upon by her affectionate Henry that she should have breakfast in her room. It was also decided without her consent, that she would be excluded from the morning walk, so as to have time to recover.
While sipping her tea, alone in her bed, she conjured up the unbearable images from her dream behind her closed lids. Was her vivid imagination playing tricks on her? Or had she really dreamed about the General somehow murdering his wife? And yet, was it so odd an idea? After all, there was a bad reputation about this accident, and if the General had a lover, this might have been motivation enough to kill his wife...
As one of the maids entered the room to check up on her, she decided to inquire about this possibility. Nonetheless, she would have to be smart about it.
“Thank you very much, my dear, for checking up on me amidst your other duties. I must say, everybody at the Abbey has been so kind to me! And yet, taking care of such grand a place must be difficult. Has all the staff been here long?”
“Well, I don't know about all the others, I myself arrived quite recently, Miss.”
“I reckon some of the staff are quite old. Perhaps they have known the previous owner, the General's father. Or perhaps at least his wife, before she had her accident...”
“Oh, I do not think so many of them have known this time, Miss. Except for Mr Hughes, the butler. He has known the General as a child, I am sure, but none of us maids have known Mrs Tilney. I heard most of the staff was replaced after her death. Even the housekeeper had to go. The General probably needed to make some changes, in order to make it bearable to go on living in a place where such a tragedy had happened, and to bring up his three children alone... Will you need anything else, Miss?”
Catherine thanked her, but she could not help being a little disappointed at hearing that the General's mistress did not yet work at the Abbey when he was supposed to have murdered his wife for love of her. And anyway, if he had pushed her down the stairs, would he have had a reason to hide the body from his children? There should have been no marks indicating whether the fall was accidental or intentional.
Catherine shuddered as she realised that she should not have been able to make such a guess; she should not be so knowledgeable about murders. Her books really had a bad influence on her imagination after all.
Feeling a little better–now that she did not suspect the General of murder anymore–she decided to get out of bed. Her eyes fell on the chest key and she realised that she had not returned it to the General's desk. He was bound to notice that it was missing, and she might get in trouble. She had better hurry up and put it back in its original place.
She sneaked into the General's office, and tried to put the key in the exact location and position as she had found it. As she was making for the door, it sprang open, and Henry appeared before her. His face was the very expression of surprise.
“Catherine, what can you be doing here?” he exclaimed. “You cannot be ignorant of the fact that this is my father's study. His private study.”
“Of course”, she hesitantly replied. “But... Eleanor told me about your mother's portrait here, and I wanted to have a look. I must confess it never occurred to me that it may be a problem. I am very sorry.”
“I can see that”, Henry said with an indulgent smile. “Well, since you seem to be better, would you care to accompany me for a walk in the park?”
Catherine was relieved. Henry was such a comprehensive and forgiving person! Yet, as they walked near the maze in which she had overheard the General and the maid, she could not help but feel uneasy again, and decided to confide in Henry about some of her apprehensions.
“Is it not quite strange that your father never married again, after you mother passed away so early?”
That was very blunt, and Henry looked a little resentful.
“Well, I guess he must have loved my mother more than he cared to show us. Or perhaps he found no match to his high expectations.” After a pause, he smiled and added: “At least, he did not impose an awful mother-in-law onto us, as it is the case in many of your novels, to be sure.”
Catherine was grateful for his attempt at putting her at ease, despite her frank speech, but could no longer bear to keep too many secrets.
“Henry, I have a confession, but you must promise me not to be angry or mad at me for being the messenger.”
“How could I ever be mad at you, my dear Catherine?” he replied, intrigued.
“Well... Yesterday, as you were in the village with Eleanor, and the General was supposed to be visiting a neighbour...”
“Well? The suspense is killing me, Catherine.”
She drew a long breath and spoke in one block: “Henry, your father was not away, I heard him talk to a maid, concealed in this very maze, and they seem to be having a secret affair!”
Henry marked a pause. For some moments, he seemed unsure how to react. Then, to Catherine's astonishment, his face became red, his eyes cold and his voice sharp, as he almost shouted: “How dare you make such accusations? About someone who has shown only kindness and respect to you? I know that your favorite pastime consists of reading about love affairs, betrayals and treasons, and I must admit that I may have played a role in all this, by voluntarily teasing your imagination about monsters and secrets, but I took you for a reasonable creature, Catherine. You are necessarily mistaken, and I am very disappointed in your attitude. Perhaps it is possible to read too many novels, after all.”
Our poor heroine could bear no more. She turned her back and ran as fast as she could towards the house, through the living room and up the stairs to her room.
She lay on the bed, her body shaken with sobs, and cried there for a long while. When her eyes hurt so much that crying was not worth it anymore, she wiped her tears away with her sleeve and sat on the bed, trying to breath calmly. She was thus facing the bedside table, on which a bunch of papers were neatly stacked. Of course! The old laundry lists! Despite her wet eyes and sleeves, a faint smile appeared on her face. How could she have been so obsessed with opening an old chest? How could she have been so excited by the discovery of some old sheets of paper? Henry was right. She had been too much influenced by her books, in every move she had made at the Abbey.
She took the sheet on the top of the stack. She had never seen this one. A maid must have dropped the pile as she was cleaning and put them hurriedly back on the table, not noticing that she had altered their order. The feeling of the paper felt rather different from the others. It was softer. The colour was also different. It was lighter. As she looked at the text, she saw that the handwriting was different too. And so was the content. It was not a laundry list; it was a letter:
My dear Georgiana,
I cannot wait to see you again. I miss you in my heart, in my mind and in my bones. Without you, I do not feel complete. It is with as much pleasure as sadness that I read each of you letters. The pleasure arises from reading from you, of course; anything related to you brings me more happiness than anything in the world. The sadness, however, stems from your news being addressed to me in a letter, rather than in person.
Catherine was stunned. So the General did love his wife very much, at least at the beginning! She went on reading.
But as I read your last letter, I found myself hoping that this sadness would soon be an artefact of the past. It is madness to proceed with our plan, but as we have discussed it, there seems to be no other option, if we wish to allow ourselves–and your children–to know any moment of true happiness on this Earth.
“Your children”? Was it not odd not to refer to Frederick, Henry and Eleanor as their children? And what plan could he be referring to? Catherine's eyes eagerly went on devouring the letter.
Therefore, I will be waiting for you and your children to-night, at midnight, at the foot of the stone cross at the entrance of the village. Make sure to be there on time, lest we should miss the post. (Catherine held her breath.) Do not bring any luggage with you, they would only slow you down. When we arrive in our lodgings in town, I shall provide for our whole new family. As a token of my affection, please accept this ring. It shall give you the courage to leave to-night.
I cannot wait to hold you in my arms, safe from the nasty influence of your tyrannical husband.
With all my love, and even more
“C.C.”? Those were not the General's initials! And anyway, “safe from the nasty influence of your tyrannical husband” clearly refered to the General's attitude towards his wife!
Catherine was so stunned that she almost screamed. Georgiana Tilney had a lover and they had planned to elope! For a few moments, she was not able to think. Then, as the information sank in, she started to connect it with the other pieces of information that she had been able to gather. The coffin had been closed. She had assumed that the goal had been to conceal some incriminating marks, but what if the coffin was actually empty? What if the General had pretended that his wife had had an accident in order to hide the fact that she had eloped with a mysterious C.C.?
Yet, something was amiss in this theory: the letter clearly mentioned bringing the children with them. Had Georgiana actually eloped without taking them with her? Would she really have been capable of abandonning her children to so cruel a man that she was endeavouring to escape from his influence at all possible cost?
Instead of feeling that this new clue was leading her in the direction of the truth, Catherine felt more and more perplexed and lost. She decided to get some fresh air and walked to the village.
As she was exiting the hat shop, there was only one man walking in the street. As there was nothing else to catch her eye, she allowed herself to examine his countenance; he was rather handsome–tho' he must be her parents' age–and his attire identified him as a wealthy landowner. As he walked by her, a shimmer caught her eye. At the ring finger of his left hand, she saw a magnificent golden ring adorned with a huge emerald. Without thinking, she exclaimed:
“It is the same ring!”
The man stopped and looked at her. “I beg your pardon?”
Catherine blushed. “Oh, I'm sorry, sir, never mind me. I could not help but notice this ring you are wearing on your left hand. I am quite sure I saw a similar one yesterday.”
“This is quite impossible. This ring is indeed part of a pair, but I know exactly where the other piece is, and whom it belongs to. By the bye, I don't even know who you are.”
“My name is Catherine Morland. I am visiting the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey.”
For a second, the man's face showed some annoyance, but he put himself together and smilingly answered: “And I am Charles Collins, Northanger Abbey's closest neighbour, so to speak.”
Catherine gasped. “Mr Charles Collins? Then your initials would be C.C...”
“Yes, indeed.” Mr Collins's face showed signs of perplexity.
Catherine's mind was thinking very fast, recollecting all the elements. C.C. was Henry's mother's lover. But Charles Collins was Eleanor's sweetheart. Could she be in love with an older man? In such a case, Catherine would probably understand the General's reticence, but she could not imagine her friend in such a situation. No, this Charles Collins was not Eleanor's Charles Collins. Perhaps he was his father, though.
Was this Mr Collins Georgiana's lover, then? According to the letter, he had given her a ring. Could this be this ring? This would explain how he could be sure of the location of the second ring, and why he had made it clear that he knew whom it belonged to. It belonged to his mistress, Georgiana! And this also explained the General's refusal of marrying his daughter to the son of the man who had eloped with his wife!
Her vivid thoughts were interrupted by Mr Collins. He suddenly seemed agitated, as if shaken by the thread of his own reflections.
“May I enquire as to where you think you saw my ring's counterpart?”
“It belongs to a maid of the Abbey.”
“A maid?” he exclaimed. “That damned devil! He gave it to a maid?”
“Who? The General?”
“Yes!... How did you know I was referring to the General?”
“Well, I heard him talk to the maid about the ring.” Catherine realised that she was being very indiscreet. And yet, she was finally getting some answers and could not be compelled to stop. “But how did the General get hold of the ring? You gave it to his wife on the night you flew away together.”
“How do you know that, young lady?” Mr Collins's voice was shaking with agitation.
“I found the letter you wrote to her on that very night. The letter that you signed C.C.”
Mr Collins sighed and seemed to calm down. “You seem to already know too much, there is no point in hiding the truth from you. I did give the ring to Georgiana on the night we were supposed to elope, but that we never did. I waited for her at the cross and she never came. I thought she had changed her mind, but the following day, I heard about her accident. She did not come because she was dead!”
Catherine gasped. She realised that it was just as Henry had told her: broken hearts, betrayals, treasons, fear and death. All the features of her horrid novels could be found in the real world, after all.
“But is it not very odd that she should have had her accident on that very night? Do you think she fell because she was rushing down the stairs?” She bit her lip for saying too much. It was most indelicate to suggest that the love of his life might have died because she was rushing to meet him.
A dark veil fell upon his eyes. “If this be the case, I shall feel guilty forever. But she was such a cautious person. I cannot resign myself to think that she ran down the stairs. To be entirely honest, I have always wondered whether she had not, let's say, been somehow helped down the stairs.” Catherine looked horrified. “But you must not talk about this to anybody, Miss Morland. I should never have confided thus in a stranger, but you already knew so much... And, to be entirely honest, I am quite grateful that I could finally let it all out. But now, I must part with you. You should not be seen in my company, if you wish to retain the General's favour. Good-day, Miss Morland, and good-bye.”
He bowed and hurried away before she had time to think of making a move. In seconds, she found herself alone in the street and decided to proceed back to the Abbey, altho' she could not compose herself. She had learnt so many horrible things which she would never have imagined to be possible. She wondered how she would ever be able to face Henry again, after their quarrel and his accusations, and now that, in all probability, she knew much more about his parents than he did. But then, should she tell him what she knew? No; he would never believe her.
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