A/N: I am accustomed to giving an author's disclaimer, though I doubt anyone still holds the copyright on Jane Austen's works. Still, I am not her, though the words in italics are hers. The other words are mine.
There was a thought yet nearer, a more prevailing, more impetuous concern. How Henry would think, and feel, and look, when he returned on the morrow to Northanger and heard of her being gone, was a question of force and interest to rise over every other, to be never ceasing, alternately irritating and soothing; it sometimes suggested the dread of his calm acquiescence, and at others was answered by the sweetest confidence in his regret and resentment.
On Sunday evening Henry Tilney returned to Northanger Abbey on horseback, approaching his ancestral home from the south, along the same road that first brought Catherine Morland to the house; and would, he fervently hoped, bring her again when her current visit ended, as it must a few weeks hence. It was with his thoughts thus both agreeably and regretfully engaged that he espied an imposing figure on foot on the road before him. His father awaited him on the road, just before the final drive-way up to the Abbey, and the sight of him, alone, gave Henry no small feeling of unease. Though Henry and Eleanor had perceived nothing in Miss Morland's situation likely to engage their father's particular respect; they had seen with astonishment the suddenness, continuance, and extent of his attention, such that it seemed most singular to Henry for their father to be found so far from Miss Morland's side.
General Tilney stood aside gravely as Henry dismounted. "We leave in the morning for Herefordshire," the general said. "I have engaged us all to visit Lord Longtown for a fortnight."
Henry was greatly surprised. "This is sudden," he said. "I hope the change of venue is agreeable to Miss Morland."
"Miss Morland has gone home," the general said.
"Home!" cried Henry. "Indeed! What has happened? I pray she received no bad news from Fullerton."
"She deceived us. I sent her away."
"Deceived us? Good God, in what way? Of what are you speaking?"
"She has greatly imposed on you; on all of us. Miss Morland was no more than an ambitious grasping child. Penniless, greedy. I regret the day you ever met her. When I think of the time, the care, the expense I have bestowed on her . . ."
The tumult of Henry's thoughts can scarce be described. He could hear nothing further with any equanimity of mind; if his father provided any explanation, any further narration of events, any crime of Catherine's, Henry could never say. His only clear thought was that it must be false. Catherine could not have been sent from Northanger in such a way. No, it could never be! If he rode ahead to the abbey he would find her there still, and all this would be explained.
"What have you done?" he asked his father, remounting his horse. Without waiting for an answer, he galloped ahead, through the abbey gate, and spying a stable-boy, halted his mount while still in the courtyard, and, throwing the boy the reins, rushed within.
His sister, having heard his horse on the cobblestones, met him in the entry hall. She looked pale in a yellow satin gown standing alone in the great dark edifice. Henry strode into the hall. "Eleanor. I've just met Father on the road . . ."
"Come," she said, and, giving him a look of extreme misery, swept toward the sitting room, where they could talk without being overheard by the servants. A fire was lit, and Eleanor's work-box sat open upon a table.
"It's true, then? Miss Morland has been sent home?" At his sister's nod, he continued, his words pouring from a source of grief he had not known he bore within himself. "Please tell me how this could come about. Make me understand the cause, the necessity. I know she did not receive bad news from Fullerton, for Father himself told me he sent her away. I could not rightly understand him. Eleanor, please tell me what has happened."
His sister communicated, as best she could, given her own grief and dismay, how summarily Miss Morland had been dismissed, without even a servant for an escort, nor her family owning any cognisance of her journey.
"But for what cause? Eleanor, what was the cause?" he cried.
"What cause could there be? You know her too well to think she could have done anything to warrant such treatment." Eleanor wept. "When I think how we parted; what pain she must have felt, but how bravely she bore it; how she refused even to write me of her safe arrival, as her writing me would have my parent's disapprobation, I am wretched."
"Why, this is worse and worse," Henry said, finding his breath catching in his throat. "Had she any money for the post fare?"
"I gave her some," Eleanor said. "She did not leave without that support, but Father had no part in it."
Henry collapsed into a chair, his legs no longer supporting him. "Did she—had she any message to me?" he ventured. His sister, he was sure, would not blame him for the impropriety of the question.
"Oh, Henry, she tried, but she could not bear to say your name. She left me with some civility toward 'our absent friend', but think nothing of that. She was in no fit state to leave you any friendly words. We neither of us were unperturbed."
Henry fixed a hard gaze upon her. "What says the general?" he asked.
Eleanor also took a chair, but looked miserably at her hands in her lap. "I cannot tell you," she said. "I have not had the courage to speak to him. I must spend today preparing for the journey into Herefordshire."
Henry saw then that bearding the lion must be his office. His young sister could not be expected, even on behalf of her friend, to question closely the father who was her support and provider; even, too much of the time, her only companion.
Henry used the time until his father returned to the abbey to examine his own feelings. Since the day he'd met Catherine Morland in Bath he'd enjoyed her enthusiasm and artlessness. When, to his surprise, his father had so openly encouraged the association, he'd been happy to have the young woman in his life as much as might be. His attentions to her had gone well past the point where friends and acquaintances must assume an engagement to be imminent, but neither of them had yet spoken of love. Henry had been content to enjoy the time of her visit and hope for an invitation to Fullerton where he might first meet her family and court their approval. He'd believed he had a surfeit of time to know his own heart and to be sure of hers. This change in his father, whatever its cause, threw all his plans and feelings into disarray. He believed his strongest concerns were for the incivility, the ill-judgment and even danger of sending so young a woman alone to travel post, but as he waited for the general's return, he found his strongest feelings were for himself, bereft of Miss Morland's smiles and naïve happiness. He was heartsick; he had not known the strength of his own regard.
The confrontation occurred over dinner, since the general, punctual as ever about household matters, returned to the house at dinner time. His aspect was dark and angry and Henry could see why Eleanor had not dared to speak to him. Henry himself, though certain in his rectitude and knowing himself better at every moment, felt keenly the lifetime of habit, spent as a younger son, dependant even for the living at Woodston upon his father's generosity; letting Frederick, his father's heir, play the part of the defiant while he took the role of peacemaker and protector to his younger sister. He was out of practice with rebellion.
"We'll speak no more of her," the general said, gruffly, upon the subject being broached.
"I will speak further of her, Father," Henry said. "I insist on being satisfied."
"You insist? Henry, I know I have robbed you and Eleanor of your friend after I have particularly encouraged the friendship, but you are not permitted to insist. It is for the best."
Eleanor watched them both, her eyes wide, her dinner untouched.
"And yet I will insist, still," said Henry. "The dishonor which your behavior towards her brings to all our family falls also on Eleanor and me. What possible defense can you give for luring a young woman away from her friends, those trusted by her family to attend her welfare; bringing her to a distance from her home twice as far as her family had originally permitted, and then sending her away without notice, without escort and without money? Most of all—and most injurious to her feelings and to the consideration of all who love her—without an explanation?"
"It's the money that concerns you, eh? You agree then that the woman was penniless, and depending on the charity of my house."
"I agree only that after nearly three months from home, she was like to have spent all the allowance she had. She had every right to depend upon support from her host. What right-thinking Christian would do less?"
"I had information when I was in Town, that Miss Morland, contrary to how she represented herself to us, is in fact from a large and nearly destitute family of no breeding or connexions, who only sought the most advantageous marriage possible in order to raise their condition out of squalor. Miss Morland, Henry, desired only a connexion with a wealthy family and I forbid you to think further of her."
Stunned, Henry hardly knew where to begin. In Eleanor's looks Henry saw himself urged to pursue the questioning further; which encouragement was needless, as his own inclination urged him on. "In what way, Sir, do you believe that she represented herself to us? She told us herself her family was large, and, as to fortune, what expectations could you have had from the daughter of a clergyman?"
"She was to be the heiress to her family's childless friends, the Allens. Now I learn that there was never such an understanding, though she allowed me to believe it in order to promote an engagement with you."
Henry and Eleanor exchanged glances filled with powerful feelings: shock, disbelief, confusion, as well as a growing understanding of their father's mysterious behaviour since Bath. "From where," Henry cried, "did you hear of this understanding? For, upon my word, you never heard it from her."
"You defend her, do you? In all this time she enjoyed the favor of our family, yet never did she wonder at it. That I should flatter her and encourage a connexion with us never seemed too wonderful for her pride; with her condition so decidedly beneath our own. Depend on it, Henry, she was no more than a fortune hunter."
"Indeed, I will accept no such judgment," cried Henry warmly. "As the daughter of a fellow clergyman, she can be in no way beneath me, and as for wondering at your treatment of her, your children have wondered at it mightily, and now all is explained. It is not Miss Morland who is the fortune hunter. She is young and new to society. In all her life she has known love and praise. Where should she think she is unworthy of admiration? She has shown you all proper gratitude and modesty. Why should a respectable young lady of manners and breeding, sensibility and good humor, vivacity and wit believe she is unworthy to be loved?" A small gasp was heard from Eleanor's quarter, but Henry had no desire to rephrase his declaration. "I leave as soon as may be for Fullerton, and pray God that Miss Morland has taken no injury on her way home."
"We all leave on the morrow for Lord Longtown's," the general said. "Your acquaintance with Miss Morland must end. This is my final word on the matter."
"Then I am sorry for you. I will not accompany you into Herefordshire. You will make my apologies to Lord Longtown, particularly since I never entered into the engagement for my part. I will see that Miss Morland has arrived safely, and apologise to her and all her family for your contemptible treatment of her."
"You will do nothing of the kind," said the general. "I have promised you to Lord Longtown's and I will not be forsworn for an obstinate, rebellious son."
Henry stood away from the table. "I perfectly understand you, Sir. Now rightly understand me. Catherine Morland will be your daughter-in-law if she will accept my hand." Henry bowed to his sister. "Good night, Eleanor." Before that lady could respond, Henry spun on his heel and strode to the door.
"This house will be barred to you!" the general roared, and, "Henry, I order you to return!" but alas for him, Henry was not the son who was in the army.