Turning to explore the countryside, Henry found it impossibly beautiful: all was bright, airy, peaceful, and alive with color. Though the sun shone full overhead the heat was not oppressive, nor did he feel any chill beyond a refreshing breeze, inspiring him to such lightness of heart that his breath caught.
The first sign of life he found was a dog, which he thought he recognized. "Why, Garm, is that you? You died when I was but a boy in a hunting accident." The dog answered to his name and Henry bent to pet its head. "Do you know," he said, accepting the hound's tender ministrations, "I sometimes think you were the first funeral I performed? I helped the gamekeeper bury you, and he let me say a few words. I hope I did you justice." To judge by the dog's enthusiasm, it was very satisfied with any and all attention bestowed.
Accepting the animal's company, Henry continued walking, and found it leading him along a nearly indiscernible path uphill. Occasionally he thought he recognized figures moving amid the trees, or heard familiar voices nearby. At one point he stopped, certain he had just spied the form of an ancestor whose portrait he had seen a thousand times in the abbey's gallery, and yet could not tell when he looked back whether it was truly him or a mirage. The dog pushed at his legs, urging him forward, and Henry allowed himself to be led on.
Eventually they came to a plateau of sorts, and Henry was by now unamazed to discover a banquet: glorious arrangements of fruits, meat, and wine lay upon a solid oak table with the best china set at each placement. A great host gathered round in luxurious chairs, some he recognized from paintings or memory, and many he did not. But only three commanded his attention: his mother sat at a place of honor to the right of her own father, his Grandfather Drummond, at the head of the table. And on that man's left, eyes downcast and without food upon her plate, was his own dear Catherine.
Henry at once ran forward to greet her, but she neither heard nor saw him, only kept focused on her folded hands. Touch availed him not: his hand would not rest on her shoulder or arm, but passed directly through to the chair, without any sign she was aware of his presence. The rest of the party was similarily unmoved, only his two nearest relations seeming to notice his person at all.
"You should not be here," the older gentleman said, shaking his head. "I am surprised at you Henry: though distractable, you were always an obedient child, and you have been very faithful to your calling. But you never could leave well enough alone. I have told your mother many times: that boy will get into trouble from those brains, mark my words. It does not do to fill your head with so very much if it turns your wits askew."
"But it is not selfishness that prompts my appearance," Henry replied, turning from one revered face to another. "I come as much for the lady's own good."
"You know we love you dearly," his mother said with such sweetness he felt as safe and loved as when a lad upon her knee. "But I am afraid you have been very foolish. Your wife has died; there is no coming back for her, and you risk being lost yourself in insisting on your prerogative."
"Why, if it were not for your helmet, you might have already drowned. Do not think it will be any easier for you to return either: best you go back at once and pray for salvation."
"Even so," Henry said, attempting to remain confident even as he felt his maturity shaken by these combined authorities, "I must ask for her restoration. It is not merely that I wish her back, though that is true: all reason, all wisdom demands it. She did not die naturally, at least not by any coherent nature known to man. Catherine was by spectacular means removed; I have only used the same methods in retrieving her. You must see the logic in it. Look, she is not like anyone else here in this company: she has neither senses, nor taste, nor even a share of the dinner. Surely that marks her as not belonging to this realm."
"As to that, we none of us belong here," his Grandfather answered without concern. "This place is not permanent, for it is not yet the Bridegroom's time, and the full wedding supper has not been served. But we will tarry until then, safe in the knowledge that our ways are not Heaven's. We have the confidence of a promised land to come. If you will be patient, Henry, you will have that as well, when it is your turn to join us."
"But as a bridegroom myself, you must allow me to object when the bride is not fashioned for this age any more than I. Why does she sit so dumb, when we may speak freely with each other?"
His mother shook her head, and though he could not believe sadness was permitted at this table, there was the hint of apology in her tone. "It is very strange; usually, when we make the passage, our hearts are so full we can think of our loved ones with ease, and our spirits so lightened no past disappointments burden us. If she would only taste and see that all here is good, she might revive, but she has been unable to do so."
"Most irregular," the lady's father agreed. "It makes one question her devotion, were it not impossible for any truly wretched soul to join us. But however long it takes to overcome her pains, we will care for her, you need have no fear on that point."
Henry considered their assurances, struggling to find any argument that might sway them. He looked back along the table and realized there were far more than just his own family: kings and philosophers, servants and ministers, of various ages and races. All spoke and shared the meal as equals. Though he had assumed he was at the head of the table, it stretched so far in the other direction there might very well be a higher host to appeal to. For that matter, even if his family agreed with his aims, they likely had no power to assist him.
Turning back to his Grandfather, he bowed low. "You have been the chief influencer of my principals, sir, and I am thankful for your example. But I ask, I beg of you, let me at least try to move Heaven with my petitions. May I take your chair?"
The two souls who had so guarded his early life turned to each other in private communication. At last Grandfather Drummond stood, and gestured toward his seat. "But know," he warned as Henry accepted with gratitude, "it is not truly mine to give. We are all beggars at this table."
With this allusion in mind Henry looked down the length of the gathering, and found even now he could not peer to its end. Undaunted, he held up the glass at his setting and rang for attention. All those he could see turned toward him. "Honored souls," he began, nervously considering how to begin this singular homily, "as I see you are full of good society and victuals, I will not demand your indulgence long. But I wonder if I might share a story to entertain the assembly."
His confidence wavered when he saw how indifferent they appeared, especially she who sat to his left. Clearing his throat, he continued, "But perhaps it is not a story alone that will satisfy you, who must have plenty of your own to share. I wonder if we might instead have a contest, to see who might better guide this narrative to its rightful ending?"
He thought he heard the man standing behind him mutter something about Tilneys and their rivalries, but was heartened when his mother kept smiling. "If there are any nominated to best achieve this purpose, please come forward."
There were murmurs, but not as Henry had experienced at any dinner party before. For there was no coarse posturing or haughty pronouncements against the scheme, but only a shared camaraderie of interest. Eventually two persons approached, and Henry very nearly lost his nerve when he recognized one as none other than the poet of Stratford himself, ruff and all. "I did not realize you would be here," Henry said stupidly, realizing he had set himself up for a most abject failure.
The man doffed his hat with a grin. "There are more surprises dreamt of here than even my philosophy could devise; but if you seek a muse of fire, I hope I might be more than a poor player upon this stage."
In some confusion Henry turned to the other figure, who his mother greeted with warm affection. "Eliza, it is so kind of you to volunteer when you are so newly arrived yourself. Henry, you will know her name if not her face: this is Mrs. Haywood, who I know you have read of."
If anything, Henry's surprise was even greater upon realizing a novelist with her reputation could appear among the assembled party without blush or dismay. Before he could disgrace himself by questioning her, the other contestant bowed in formal greeting. "I am honored at your accepting this challenge, madame, more than words can say. And that, you know, is not easy for one like myself to admit even now!"
Mrs. Haywood, for her part, returned the courtesy with obvious merriment. "And I am happy to say my love of your wit makes me even more eager to vie in this sport. Do not worry Mr. Tilney: I am not offended by your chagrin. It would be strange indeed if you did not have some misgivings about any of our fates, given your ordination; but I trust you recall that a woman, like a man, may place her security in the mercies of our Lord above any offenses committed by or upon the sinful multitudes."
Their speeches, delivered with true art, convinced Henry he could never hope to gain mastery over either of his challengers. He should have recognized there were masters of rhetoric far beyond his measure among the dead, who since delivered from their mortal struggles could devote themselves to scaling the height of their genius. Though he prided himself with a certain talent, he had no delusions of his abilities in comparison.
He looked to Catherine again, and saw she was as unaffected by these grand purveyors of the written word as his own person, or indeed anyone else. Nor, he decided, would she have been overwhelmed had she been aware of these august persons, for while always respectful and kind to all, his wife was no less pleased with the dialogue of her young siblings as that of any book, and had often claimed to love his own speeches as much as the skilled tragedian. She would abhor bringing conflict to a place where none should be.
"I wonder," Henry started again, "if you would both indulge me further, and rather than spar with each other, we might instead set our aim to a higher purpose than overall mastery."
"There is wisdom in the generosity of the soul," Shakespeare replied gamely, "but it is our nature to beg what reward our labors may bestow."
"Are not happy people always made more so by the contemplation of their condition? And there is a heavenly quality that draws us ever nearer to the Great Author through the repetition of our virtues." Mrs. Haywood smiled as she spoke, and was rewarded by the poet saluting her.
"The lady has spoken, and never more so true; what say you, young sir? How mayst we serve?"
"I assume you are aware of the sad events that have transpired of late," Henry said, and was glad to see they both bowed their heads in acknowledgment, as much because they did not overwhelm him with their own talk as for listening to his own. "I have not been able to accept the cold hand of fate, not least of all because it was poorly done. Even my wife, so generous of heart, can not be made to see it as anything but a petty joke, considering her insensibility to the beauty around her. Death may be indifferent to our own sorrows, but not to the rules of creation itself. As you have both the experience of crafting worlds outside the common way, would you help me rewrite this pitiful scenario, and provide Catherine with a better finale than has yet been devised? The contest is to find the means of waking her; for I could never rest believing her unhappy."
He was rather proud of this speech, delivered without preparation or even much thought, and hoped it would stir their hearts to his cause. Gentleman and lady considered his proposal, and Henry saw many a head look on in anticipation from the length of the table.
"To compose anew will certainly prove a challenge; and to know whether it will prevail upon her is beyond the strength of any author's touch," Mrs. Haywood remarked. "But I am ready to make the attempt, even so."
"As am I, by honor, by wisdom, by any means at my disposal, to seek the reward of a noble lady's smile," Shakespeare agreed. "Thee have but to set the terms, gentle sir, and we will set to it at once."
It was gratifying to hear, and Henry was sorely tempted to ask for even more, given the persons now at his disposal. But remembering his recent misadventure, ever aware of Catherine's stillness at his side, and recognizing that delaying the story's end much further would prove a detriment to even the most intrepid reader, he accepted their offer with sincere thanks and asked that they begin with the wedding itself, so little described, yet so important to any composition.