The Mystery of Northanger Abbey - chapter 5
The Old Wing
Catherine spent the rest of the day absent-mindedly reading a book in the parlour–she took extra care in choosing a history book from the Abbey's library–while Eleanor embroidered tiny flower patterns on a white veil and Henry tended to some letters. To her relief, there was no occasion for her to be alone with him–altho' she suspected that he actually made sure that no such occasion should happen. She felt very grateful for it. After a quiet supper, he read some famous sermons to their small party, which reading he finished quite late in the evening, whereupon they all went to bed.
Catherine was just about to enter her bed when someone knocked on the door.
“Catherine, it's me, Eleanor. May I come in for a moment?”
Catherine put on her dressing gown and hurried towards the door. Her friend entered in quite an agitated spirit. She opened her mouth to speak but did not seem to find her words. Alarmed at her friend's apparent distress, Catherine led her to the bed and had her sit down.
“What is it, Eleanor? Has something happened? Take a deep breath and please hasten to deliver your seemingly terrible news.”
“Oh, Catherine, how can I tell you this?” Eleanor paused to compose herself, then spoke again. “My father has recollected a previous engagement that takes us all away from the Abbey tomorrow first thing in the morning. You are to leave at dawn.” She paused again.
“Well, Eleanor, there is no need for you to be so upset about the whole thing. Abrupt as it is, I do not feel offended in the slightest way. I shall make sure my trunk is ready...”
“That is not all” Eleanor interrupted her. “You shall travel post.” She paused for a moment, then added in a whisper: “No servant shall accompany you.”
Catherine sat back as the information sank in. No servant. This was very unusual for such a grand house, not to supply their guests with a proper care during such a long travel as that between Northanger Abbey and Fullerton. And travelling post, with strangers, could be a dangerous business, especially for a lonely young woman such as Catherine. This could not be the usual way Captain Tilney treated his guests–he who was so intense about being fashionable and good-mannered in every occasion. She concluded that this must be the expression of some discontent on his behalf. He had felt offended–in whatever way, she could not tell–by something Catherine had said or done, and he obviously wanted her out of the Abbey as soon as possible. Perhaps there was even no previous engagement to honour. Actually, there probably wasn't.
Eleanor broke the silence.
“My dear Catherine, I beg you not to take offence at such an insulting behaviour. I cannot agree with such a treatment of your person, and Henry has been very vehement in the defense of your being, at least of your safety, but all this has been in vain. You must be gone. Have you any money to pay for your travel?”
“Money... I had not thought of that! As I was in Bath, the Allens paid for all my expenses, so much so that I believe I forgot to pack my purse when leaving Bath!”
“Well, in that at least I can help you.” Eleanor handed her a small purse.
“Dear Eleanor, what did I do to make the General so angry at me? Please, tell me... Is it because Henry found me in his study? I merely went therein to have a look at your mother's portrait and...”
“Dear Catherine, do not fret about that. You are nowhere to blame in the matter. I know my father's motives, and believe me, they do him no credit.”
Eleanor left on these laconic words. Catherine immediately started to pack her things, her body as agitated as her mind. If it was not about the General's study, could it be that Henry had told his father about their conversation? This was very unlikely, as Henry had always been very affectionate towards her and had never shewn any sort of connivance with his father. He may not have believed her, but he had most probably kept their words to himself.
As she was reaching for her green muslin gown in the cupboard, an idea dawned upon her. What if he had seen her talk with Mr Collins? She had seen nobody in the street, but there must have been people in the shops and the houses. They had therefore probably been seen together. What if, then, the General had pieced things together? He may–rightfully–suspect her of knowing too much.
But what did she know, exactly? She knew that Mrs Tilney and Mr Collins had been in love. They had planned to elope with her children. He had given her the emerald ring. But she was not come and had died. The General had insisted on a closed casket, probably in the attempt to hide something, but what could it be? And now, he, in his turn, had a lover. He had given her the emerald ring, but where had he found it? On his dead wife's body? Catherine thought she was going to faint from terror as much as exertion, when she heard a sound outside the room. Someone was walking in the corridor towards her door. Her agitated mind jumped to horrifying conclusions and, believing that they were coming to murder her, she crept under the bed. After a few seconds, however, she realised–with much relief– that the steps were now drawing away in the opposite direction. They had only passed by her door.
Her spirit cooled down instantly. All of a sudden, she felt very ridiculous. How could she have imagined that someone in the Abbey could be willing to murder her? She now resisted a violent urge to laugh at herself for being so silly. Being composed again, she started to feel that her mind was working normally again. And this again-normally-working-mind started to wonder about the steps. Who could be walking in this corridor at such an ungodly hour? Knowing that she had nothing to lose–she would be gone in the morning anyway–and therefore feeling very daring all of a sudden, she tiptoed to the door, very cautiously opened it and peeped out in the corridor. A person was walking away, at some distance, with a candlestick. It was a man and he was rather tall, albeit entirely bald. Catherine could not mistake his features: it was Mr Hughes, the butler, and he was just opening the door towards the old wing.
Unable to repress her curiosity, she very carefully followed him. As she stepped in the old wing, she held her breath, remembering what had happened the last–and only–time she had been there. She had been so obsessed with the circumstances of Mrs Tilney's death lately that she had totally forgot about the ghost–or whatever inhabited the old wing.
The man stopped in front of a door. He fetched a bunch of keys from his pocket, opened the door and entered the room.
“Did you finish your supper, ma'am?”
Catherine was astounded: someone was actually living in the old wing!–which explained, then, the sobs, and probably the howling as well, that she had heard in this place.
“Yes, Hughes, you can take the tray away. Have you brought me the picture I asked for, this time?”
It was a woman's voice; she must have been around fifty years-old. Catherine's heart started to beat considerably fast and loud.
“No, ma'am, the General has forbidden it.”
Without further ado, Mr Hughes came out of the room, carrying a tray in his hands. He closed the door, locked it back, and walked back in Catherine's direction. She had not anticipated this move and felt terrified at the idea of being discovered, but the place was so dark that she decided to just stand as silently as possible against the wall, which actually proved to be an excellent strategy, as the butler passed by her without even noticing that something was wrong. She waited for a minute after he was entirely gone before rushing towards the woman's room's door.
“Ma'am, are you in there?” she asked as quietly as possible, yet loud enough to be sure to be heard from the other side.
“Who's there?” the woman answered.
“My name is Catherine Morland. I am a friend of Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Are you alright?”
“Oh, Henry, Eleanor!” the woman cried. “How are they?”
“They are very fine indeed, ma'am.”
“Thank God for your reassuring news, Miss Morland. I have not been able to set eyes on them for so many years... My poor children...”
Her children? Catherine exclaimed: “Are you Mrs Tilney, then?”
“Yes, indeed, I go by this infamous name, altho' I very much wish I did not.”
Catherine tried to open the door. Naturally, it was locked, so she tried to pull harder. She suddenly felt a sense of urgency.
“The door is locked and well locked, my child” Mrs Tilney said. “I have often tried to open it, every time in vain.”
“How long have you been in this room? It cannot be...”
“I have been here for many years, so many that I am not sure how many anymore.”
“But why? Why does Mr Hughes keep you secretly locked away in the old wing?”
“He only does as his master bids him to.”
“So the General knows about your predicament?”
“He is the very instigator of it!”
“But why does Mr Hughes agree to keep you a prisoner here?”
“He knew my husband from infancy, and the devil was always a favorite of his. There is nothing he would not do if the General ordered him to.”
“How horrible!” Catherine exclaimed. “But we must let you out as quick as possible. How can this be made?”
“Indeed, child, I have no idea. I suspect that the only key to my room is the which Mr Hughes uses. The General is a very clever creature. He would not be clumsy enough to keep a spare key for you to find.”
“Then, I must find someone who can help me.” Catherine decided. “Wait for me, I shall return promptly.”
As swiftly–yet carefully–as possible, Catherine went back to her own room. The corridor of the old wing, with its prisoner and horrid secrets, was too frightening for her to think clearly. She must find someone. But she did not know anybody in the area! Or did she? She thought of Mr Collins. He would be, of course, most willing to help her deliver his long-lost lover from her fiendish husband. But he lived several miles away, and it was all dark outside. How could she hope to find the way to his house in the dark, let alone be admitted in his presence and come back before dawn? Surely, she must act very quickly, because if, come dawn, she was nowhere to be found in the Abbey, the General would necessarily suspect that something was amiss, and who could tell what would then happen? He may, in an outburst of rage, harm his wife. After all, Catherine did not know why he was so intense about her leaving the Abbey immediately.
So fetching Mr Collins was impossible. Was there not someone closer-by? A servant, perhaps? No, she did not know any of them; besides, they may decide to give their allegiance to their boss and employer, for fear of losing a good position in a prominent house.
Catherine then thought of Eleanor. Surely, her friend would want to help her free her mother, but what more than Catherine could she do? If they could not have access to the key, the door must be smashed open, and that required some strength. Only a man could do it.
“Henry!” she exclaimed. “Why have I not thought of him before?”
Without thinking any longer, she rushed out of her room and into Henry's.
“Henry! Henry! You must wake up this instant!”
The young man woke up with a start. “What is it?... Who is there?”
“Henry, it is me, Catherine.”
“Catherine! What are you doing in my chambers?” He looked at her–his bedroom was oriented in such a way that the rays of the moon shone right through the window onto the distressed girl, whom he could therefore very clearly see, in her white sleeping gown–and looked away immediately. “Catherine, you are not decent!”
“There is no time for such trifling matters. Come this instant! The most terrible thing has happened, or rather, has been revealed... But there is no time to explain, you must come!” And without giving him time to protest or react in any way, she seized his wrist and pulled so hard that he stood up and started to follow her. As they were walking hastily out of the room, he composed himself again.
“Catherine, will you stop! What is the matter? You are delirious!”
“There is not time to explain, lest he shall discover us and kill her!” she urged him–quite deliriously indeed.
“Kill her? My poor friend, you must have just awoke from the most terrible dream and your agitation makes you unable to tell reality from imagination.” He stopped walking, thus stopping Catherine's hasty progression as well.
“Henry, I am not dreaming!” she pleaded. It then occurred to her that, altho' he did not believe what she was endeavouring to tell him, Henry was now genuinely concerned about her health and her mental state. She had his complete attention; which meant that she did not need to drag him anymore. He would probably follow her wherever she may go, for fear that she may hurt herself. She therefore let go of his hand and started running towards the door to the old wing.
“Catherine, stop this madness!” Henry shouted as he followed her quickly.
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