Surrounded by books on the Wilton-carpeted floor of her beloved drawing room at Woodston rectory, Catherine Tilney surveyed her growing collection - mostly, but not entirely, novels - with a sense of satisfaction. Life with Henry was everything it ought to be, and Woodston was indeed almost a house without faults.
The rectory was newer than the couple would have liked, having been almost completely rebuilt and “improved” by General Tilney two years prior, but Henry and Catherine endeavored to decorate in ways that made it seem more specifically theirs. Catherine had by now matured to the point where she could appreciate furnishings more recent than the fifteenth century, and Henry finally had the wife and the time to set his mind to fitting out the last unfinished rooms in the house in a reasonable way.
And while Catherine was not quite “the sad, heedless young housekeeper” her mother had foretold, the house always seemed a bit of a mess - even with the assistance of some very conscientious servants. Between Henry’s litter of books and guns and papers and dogs, and Catherine’s various half-finished projects, novels, and three kittens of her own, there was always something, somewhere out of place.
Catherine categorized this as a fault, but in truth it bothered the Tilneys very little. The cozy mess gave their house a warmth that Henry’s grand family seat - Northanger Abbey - had always lacked. A happy family home was something they both craved - Catherine because it reminded her of her recent, happy childhood at Fullerton, and Henry because it was something he’d never quite had, at least not since his mother passed away a decade before.
Though only married some ten months, Catherine often wondered when they might be blessed with children to complete the picture of domestic happiness. There were Henry’s pups and her cats to mother in the interim, and her visits to families in the village, which were almost a worthy substitute for the family and friends left back in Fullerton. But Catherine longed for family of her own, with her husband.
Soon, perhaps, she thought, attempting to remember the last time she could tell with certainty that she was not with child. Certainly over a month by now, though that didn’t necessarily mean anything…
Shivering a bit in a sudden draft of cold air, Catherine glanced between the door and windows - all sensibly closed - and then over at the fireplace grate. “That’s curious,” she murmured, noting that the afternoon’s fire was still crackling merrily away. On the sofa behind her, one of Henry’s terriers dozed on a shawl between two sleeping kittens. The other animals were probably in the kitchen, making themselves nuisances for scraps while they waited for their master to return home.
It was growing unseasonably dark for the hour, she thought, watching the October afternoon darkening with thunderheads. Perhaps that’s it, Catherine continued to herself, standing up to light several more candles. Just the storm, making things colder and darker than usual.
Truth be told, Catherine adored a good storm. Thunder, lightning, wind - it was all very thrilling in a safe enough way. She wasn’t truly alone this time, after all - a maid and the cook were still in the house - and Henry would be home soon. His parish meetings weren’t far, and the storm would undoubtedly send everyone scattering home in advance of the worst of the rain and mud.
Turning her attention back to her books, Catherine realized that she had finished two histories in the last month, a monumental achievement which she credited entirely to her husband’s good influence. Further, it struck her that she was now truly, finally beginning to actually enjoy the subject.
The truth - or as much of it as can be known, given the embellishments, as underwhelming as they might be, to which Catherine attributed to virtually all historians - remained much less interesting than the fanciful and fictional. Still, she could now appreciate that there was at least some romance in the events of the past. As Mr. Walpole, the literary forerunner of her dear Mrs. Radcliffe, once wrote, "History is a romance that is believed; romance, a history that is not believed.”
After all, crumbling gothic castles, mysterious abbeys, and ancient tombs painted in moonlight would be meaningless without some reasonable historical background to make them worth haunting in the first place. At least that’s what she told herself, and with no small degree of satisfaction.
Won’t Eleanor be proud of me? Catherine mused in passing, composing snippets of correspondence to her history-loving sister-in-law in her head.
At the very least, history was more agreeable than the essays published in The Mirror and other sensible, instructive works her mother had hoped she might use to improve her mind and moods. Mrs. Morland, long-suffering in her attempts to educate her children, had not yet given up on helping Catherine live up to the challenges of adult life and marriage. The former Miss Morland was not a particularly industrious person, but her passion for reading (even if it was only horrid novels) had already served her well. It had, after all, helped her to secure Henry Tilney's heart.
The previous year, Catherine momentarily entertained thoughts of giving up novels entirely, but that would have been much like deciding to give up breathing air. Besides, Henry wouldn’t allow it. The very things that revealed his wife’s childish frailties also highlighted some of her most endearing qualities. Her earnestness and imagination, fueled by her passion for novels and adventure, were precisely what made her such an enchanting partner in life.
This wasn’t to say that Henry and Catherine didn’t spend time discussing the more sensible subjects any intelligent married couple might, in addition to everything with which a rector and his wife would reasonably be expected to deal on a regular basis. Village news, everyday domestic matters, religious philosophy - as well as the practical concerns of pastoral ministry entrusted to the Reverend Henry Tilney - were all topics of frequent conversation, and Catherine was heartened to realize that with her husband’s educated guidance, she was able to master it all without much trouble.
As she reached for her copy of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, one of the cats perked at the sound of rain battering the windows, hopping down from the warmth of the shawl and scampering toward the door. “It’s only rain, Emily” she admonished the kitten sweetly, hauling herself back to her feet to release the fluffy creature into the wide corridor beyond. As she did, the pup and the other kitten, aptly named Valancourt, followed nimbly after Emily toward the kitchen. “Hungry little beasts,” Catherine giggled to herself, looking up to realize that besides the candles, the room was now entirely dark.
The drawing room was normally very cheerful, even in the evening, but tonight the sconces, candelabra, and candlesticks contributed to a shadowy, almost foreboding atmosphere. As if on cue, a bright flash of lightning illuminated the wet, swaying trees beyond the windows, immediately followed by an aggressive rumble of thunder.
Shuddering with pleasure, Catherine wrapped herself in the still-warm shawl so recently vacated by the Tilney pets, leaning into the corner of the sofa as she opened her novel to a well-loved chapter. Soon, Henry would return, they would eat, they would enjoy the storm, and they would talk.
Catherine was so content and relaxed that she didn’t get far with her reading. Nodding off into the twilight between sleep and consciousness, she half-dreamt herself in a pastiche of her favorite novels. One moment she was standing in a gallery of haunted portraits that moved as if living, like in Otranto, the next she was moving through a corridor with pictures that seemed haunted in an entirely different way. These portraits seemed ordinary until lightning flashed outside, revealing a Grecian beauty to be a fierce gorgon with a headful of menacing snakes, a reclining maiden as a predatory feline, and a handsome young man as a decaying corpse.
It all seemed so realistic that Catherine could almost believe she wasn’t dreaming. But surely, she thought as she found herself dashing through a hallway with no visible end, that seemed to shift and breathe around her, truly I am at home and dreaming in my drawing room, am I not?
Her thoughts were disrupted by the appearance of a massive, menacing headless knight, something a bit more like what she was used to from Otranto, yet no less terrifying than the horrors she’d encountered before. Just as it appeared her path forward was well and truly blocked, Catherine suddenly encountered a passage to another corridor, where locked doors bowed out towards her, accompanied by roaring noises that sounded like nothing she had ever heard in her life. Wherever she was - this, this house, she supposed - it was a living, breathing thing beyond anything in Walpole, let alone the less supernatural gothic novels of more recent times.
Catherine squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to wake herself, but when she opened them, she was not back in her sitting room at home, she was in Mrs. Tilney’s rooms at Northanger. Or at least, a place that was meant to represent Northanger, because this gothic, stone room looked nothing like the Abbey she knew, apart from the veiled portrait of Henry’s mother looming in front of her.
Udolpho, Catherine immediately surmised, suddenly feeling very small and incredibly frightened. Despite the fact that she considered herself reformed and recovered since her embarrassment that day in Mrs. Tilney’s chamber at the Abbey, Catherine would rather have braved the most haunted castle in Europe than another moment reliving the torment she felt at having made a fool of herself in front of Henry.
Henry. Surely he wasn’t here. If Henry were present, even disappointed Henry…or angry Henry, really… that would be better than this. Catherine covered her eyes as she attempted to rush in the direction she assumed was away from the portrait and out of the room.
When she opened her eyes again, she found herself in a wholly different space, an octagonal room without windows or doors, with four odd paintings that seemed to stretch upward with the walls in grotesque and frightening ways. If she weren’t already asleep, Catherine was certain that she would faint at the sight. She tried to scream, yet discovered that she couldn’t make a single sound. Not even a pitiful squeak.
She screwed her eyes shut again, willing herself to awaken. Catherine, wake up! she chanted in her head, suddenly finding herself in a vast library filled with floating books and portrait busts that seemed to follow her through the room with their cold marble eyes. A pianoforte nearby played a recognizable tune on its own, which was apparently the very last straw for poor Catherine.
The next she knew, she was awake, sitting bolt upright and screaming her husband’s name. Catherine quickly realized she was on a small sofa… in Henry’s study.
“How?!” Catherine rasped aloud, her hands pressed against her cheeks as her eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness of the room. She was now thoroughly terrified - not by the dreams, which were now very clearly at an end - but in the knowledge that she had fallen asleep in her drawing room, down the hall. Had she walked in her sleep? Catherine had absolutely no experience with this type of thing, and without another soul present to help talk her down, she feared she might stop breathing entirely.
In an alcove on one wall, she could barely make out the portrait she knew hung there, of some Tilney ancestor that looked like an odd cross between Henry and Frederick. She hopped to her feet to move closer, hoping the familiar sight would calm her, then shrieked and barreled backwards once again when she thought she saw the painting blink at her.
Catherine fought against a foreign sensation creeping throughout her body, for the first time feeling what it meant to be on the edge of a fainting spell. She took a deep breath and dashed past a small table holding a Roman-style portrait bust, willing herself toward the dimly-lit crack of the doorway. She couldn’t bear to glance at the bust, convinced that if she did, it would be watching her as she moved.
As she opened the door and moved into the long corridor, she squinted in one direction toward her drawing room, and then the opposite way, to the back of the house, where the kitchen stood. There was light in both directions, but it was low, and the corridor was dark. Catherine was about to make her way toward the kitchen in hopes of finding the cook and the maid - anyone, really, she just didn’t want to remain alone in the dark - when she heard the sudden discordant clank of the pianoforte in the drawing room and then…footsteps at the end of the corridor.
Catherine was certain then that she would swoon this time, until she saw the three kittens scampering out of the drawing room. Well, that explains the ghostly music, she thought with a very heavy, relieved sigh. But what of the footsteps? Was it one of the servants? Or the rustling of the wind, as the storm still raged outside.
She altered course for the drawing room, aiming to grab a candlestick. Let there be light, she mumbled as she found what she wanted, a bit taken aback by her own Old Testament allusion. Genesis? What an addled non sequitur, Catherine Morland- er, Tilney. That said, she did feel a brief bloom of satisfaction. After all, it was only proper for the daughter and wife of clergymen to quote the Bible sometimes.
Catherine steeled herself to investigate the noise at the other end of the house, holding the candle in front of her. “Henry?” she asked the darkness, making out a tall, dark figure in a large greatcoat, a Garrick with several cloaks layered about the shoulders.
“Catherine?” It was her husband’s coat, and her husband’s voice.
“Henry!” She hurried toward him, four dogs suddenly flying past her, scratching claws against the hard floor, as they hurled themselves toward their master in a cacophany of barks and whines and woofs.
Henry made a valiant effort to still his canine companions, but it was fruitless in the end. Catherine fought her way through them to throw her arms around her husband’s very wet shoulders. “Henry, I just had the most dreadful, horrible nightmare of my life! I fell asleep reading in the drawing room, then woke up in your study - I have no idea how I got there, and -“
He silenced her with his lips, circling his arms around her waist and pulling her closer to him. “Fitting!” he finally replied, breaking the kiss to breathe. “Of course you’d have the grandest nightmare of your life during the worst storm in recent memory. I’d expect nothing less from my favorite gothic heroine, Catherine.”
Catherine pursed her lips in an expression that was half-frown and half-smile, attempting to smooth down his hair as he struggled out of his greatcoat amidst the continuing canine fanfare. Lately added to the flurry of movement and noise was the emergence of Dorothy the maid, who quickly took his soaked hat and outerwear.
“Henry, it’s not amusing. I nearly collapsed in a faint!”
Henry gave her a thoughtful look, pausing to take her hand before leading her into the drawing room to sit her down. “For all of your fascination with damsels in distress and literary terror, you’re the last woman I could imagine actually swooning from fear.” He continued to regard her gently, with kindness and a tiny bit of concern in his expression. “You’re also the last woman I would expect to hyperbolize such a thing, Catherine. Are you well?”
She bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. “I…I think so,” Catherine began. She was well, wasn’t she? “Aside from almost collapsing, and the most vivid dreams I’ve ever experienced…well, I suppose I have been feeling a bit…unwell in the mornings, lately.”
“Catherine,” Henry said in a very deliberate, gentle tone, taking both of her hands between his own. “Could you be…when was the last time you…?”
She shook her head. “No, it hasn’t been quite long enough…” Catherine started to respond, before realization struck her. Her eyes widened.
“Oh no, I was wrong. More than two months, surely. I think…the last was…summer. When Eleanor came. And the dreaming…mother once told me that she had the most awful nightmares before James was born and…”
“Catherine!” Henry exclaimed gently, the softest, most loving expression she’d yet seen sweeping across his face. “Oh my dearest girl, God bless you!” He kissed her hands reverently, then pressed his forehead against them for several moments before drawing her into a rather long embrace.
Catherine let him hold her, burrowing her face against his neck as the shock abated and a warm, cozy feeling spread from the space around her heart to the rest of her body. It seemed she never realized how cold she was until Henry was there to warm her. “Sir?” she murmured sheepishly into his cravat, taken aback by her own sudden formality and small voice.
Henry snorted. “Yes Madame?” he countered, pulling back a bit to search her face.
“I’m sorry. I should have realized. I should have mentioned the possibility sooner.”
“Oh Mrs. Tilney, stop apologizing,” he admonished her lovingly. “You apologize more, yet do so much less to warrant apology, than any person I know.”
“I love you,” Catherine whispered against his shoulder, tears beginning to roll down her cheeks. “You are perfect and I do not deserve you.”
“I love you, Catherine Tilney,” he responded tenderly, rubbing her back with slow, gentle strokes. “Forever, and without condition. I will love you and our children and do everything in my power to make you happy and keep you safe. You know this.”
“Yes, I know. I know what you were willing to give up to marry me! It made me love you even more, and I already loved you very much as it was.” Catherine pulled back to look at him with what she was sure had to be a very stupid, besotted expression on her face.
“Not to test the boundless charity of your regard, but…and do truly forgive me if this is stupid, Henry…how did I get from here to your study while I was asleep? And why did the portrait in the alcove wink at me when I woke up?”
Henry chortled at that, rubbing his forehead in resignation. “I can tell it’s time to feed you. We’ll call them symptoms of your condition and leave it at that.” He stood up, offering her his hand and leading her to the dining-parlor.
As they passed his study door, they failed to notice the three kittens alternately hissing at the Roman bust as it regarded them intently from the table in the corner.