by Jane Austen & Jack Caldwell
Greetings, faithful followers of the Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles. Your favorite Louisiana native, Jack Caldwell, here. We—the lovely Beta Babes and I—are in a generous mood. Therefore, we have included the following for your reading pleasure. Halloween is upon us, and this is about as close as I’ve ever gotten to a supernatural story. Some of you may recognize it from my series of Jane Austen short stories, VARIATIONS. But it’s improved—there are photos included now!
Note that the next installment of Mr. Darcy’s P&P POV follows. The usual requirements apply.
We Have Mrs. Radcliffe to Thank
(from VARIATIONS, a series of Jane Austen “what ifs”)
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all against her in equal measure. She was the eldest daughter of a country clergyman, and while certainly not rich, she was not destitute either. She loved her family, her home, and her romantic novels and expected very little else out of life, except for a handsome man to sweep her off her feet and carry her away. As the chances of that occurring were very slight, her life was very ordinary.
Thanks to her friends, the Allens, Catherine was taken to Bath, where she made the acquaintance of Miss Eleanor Tilney, the beautiful daughter of a local retired army general, and her brother, the equally handsome Mr. Henry Tilney. Acquaintance rapidly grew into friendship, and just as quickly, an invitation to Miss Tilney’s home was extended and accepted.
Catherine never had such an adventure before in her young life—visiting a country estate as the particular friend of a lovely girl with her extremely agreeable brother as escort! Such things did not happen to clergyman’s daughters from Fullerton!
Northanger Abbey was a disappointment, however. As a faithful reader of the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe, Catherine could not help but be delighted at the prospect of the expected gothic grandeur that was sure to be the Tilney estate. However, the reality was nothing of the sort. The abbey was a short, squat hall on level ground. Inside, the furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fireplace, where she had expected to find the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain, though handsome, marble and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar regard from having heard the General talk of preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved—the form of them was Gothic, and they might be even casements—but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions and the heaviest stone—work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.
Another blow was that Mr. Tilney did not reside there with the General and Eleanor. Woodston, nearly twenty miles distant from the Abbey, was his establishment. For at the age of seventeen, Catherine had found someone as worthy of her admiration as her dear novels. In Henry Tilney she found all expectations of her necessities of an agreeable gentleman. He was smart, in both mind and dress, and was clever without being cruel. And there was another accomplishment besides—a depth of feeling she had never known existed in the world outside what her mother called her “dreadful novels.” As much as Catherine enjoyed Eleanor’s company, she anticipated Henry’s visits with sweet eagerness.
The General, however, was not so agreeable. Dark and foreboding was his aspect. Catherine seldom saw him except at dinner, and sharp was his questioning of his visitor. He insisted on prompt attendance, and his only other command was that Miss Moreland refrain from entering any room in the family wing, save Miss Tilney’s.
For a girl raised on novels Gothic, this was the same as an open invitation. Catherine longed to explore the bedrooms there, particularly the room of the late Mrs. Tilney. Ever since she beheld the portrait of the woman in the family chapel, Catherine was convinced that the lady had been a victim of foul play. Moreover, it was fixed in her mind that the perpetrator of the heinous deed was none other than the poor woman’s husband. Why else would the General, usually so attentive, glower so at her at any approach to the prohibited room?
For several weeks, Catherine tried to talk her friend into an exploration of the chambers to no avail. Eleanor, due to fealty and fear, could not be moved. Catherine’s curiosity had to be appeased. She came to the resolution that she would make her next attempt on the forbidden door alone. It would be much better in every respect that Eleanor should know nothing of the matter. To involve her in the danger of detection, to court her into an apartment which must wring her heart, could not be the office of a friend. The General’s utmost anger could not be to herself what it might be to a daughter, and besides, she thought the examination itself would be more satisfactory if made without any companion.
Of the way to the apartment she was now perfectly mistress, and as she wished to gain entrance before Henry’s return, expected on the morrow, there was no time to be lost. The day was bright, her courage high. At four o’clock, the sun was two hours above the horizon, and she would be the only one retiring to dress a half-hour earlier than usual.
Catherine found herself alone in the gallery before the clocks had ceased to strike. There was no time for thought. She hurried on, slipped with the least possible noise through the folding doors, and without stopping to look or breathe, rushed forward to the one in question. The lock yielded to her hand, and luckily, with no sullen sound that could alarm a human being. On tiptoe she entered. The room was before her, but it was some minutes before she could advance another step.
She beheld what fixed her to the spot and agitated her every feature. She saw a large, well-proportioned apartment, a handsome bed with dimity curtains, arranged as with a housemaid’s care, a bright Bath stove, mahogany wardrobes, and neatly painted chairs, on which the warm beams of a western sun gaily poured through two sash windows!
Catherine had expected to have her feelings worked, and worked they were. Astonishment and doubt first seized them, and a shortly succeeding ray of common sense added some bitter emotions of shame. She could not be mistaken as to the room, but how grossly mistaken she had been in everything else! This apartment, to which she had given a date so ancient, a position so awful, proved to be all that was delightful. True, it had not been used in some time, but it bore the mark of the servants—not a speck of dust could be found. There were two other doors in the chamber, leading into dressing—closets, no doubt, but she had no inclination to open either. Would the veil in which Mrs. Tilney last walked or the volume she had last read remain to tell what nothing else was allowed to whisper?
No—whatever might have been the General’s crimes, he had certainly too much wit to let them sue for detection.
Catherine was sick of exploring and desired nothing more than to be safe in her own room with only her own heart privy to its folly. She was at the point of retreating as softly as she had entered, when the sound of footsteps—she could hardly tell from where—made her pause and tremble.
To be found there, even by a servant, would be unpleasant, but by the General would be much worse! She listened—the sound had ceased—and resolving not to lose a moment, she passed through and closed the door.
At that instant, a door beneath her was hastily opened. Someone seemed with swift steps to ascend the stairs, the head of which Catherine had yet to pass before she could gain entrance to the gallery. She had no power to move.
With a feeling of terror not quite definable, she fixed her eyes on the staircase, and in a few moments, it gave Henry to her view.
He looked astonished too. “How came I up that staircase?” he replied, greatly surprised. “Because it is the nearest way from the stable yard to my own chamber; and why should I not use it?”
Catherine recollected herself, blushed deeply, and could say no more. He seemed to be looking in her countenance for that explanation which her lips did not afford. She moved on towards the gallery.
“And may I not, in my turn,” said he, as he pushed back the folding doors, “ask how you came here? This passage is at least as extraordinary a road from the breakfast parlor to your apartment as that staircase can be from the stables to mine.”
She could not lie to his bright, penetrating blue eyes. “I have been to see your mother’s room,” said Catherine, looking down.
“My mother’s room! Is there anything extraordinary to be seen there?”
“No, nothing at all.”
“You look pale. I am afraid I alarmed you by running so fast up those stairs. Perhaps you did not know—you were not aware—of their leading from the offices in common use?”
“No, I was not.” She changed the subject. “You have had a very fine day for your ride.”
“Very, and does Eleanor leave you to find your way into all the rooms in the house by yourself?”
“Oh! No, she showed me for the greatest part on Saturday—and we were coming here to these rooms—but only,” dropping her voice, “your father was with us.”
“And that prevented you,” said Henry, earnestly regarding her. “Have you looked into all the rooms in that passage?”
“No, I only wanted to see —” She realized how foolish she appeared. “Is not it very late? I must go and dress for dinner.”
“It is only a quarter past four. There is time enough.”
“My mother’s room is very commodious, is it not?” Henry said. “Large and cheerful-looking, and the dressing-closets so well disposed! It always strikes me as the most comfortable apartment in the house. Eleanor sent you to look at it, I suppose?”
“It has been your own doing entirely?” Catherine said nothing. After a short silence during which he closely observed her, he added, “As there is nothing in the room in itself to raise curiosity, this must have proceeded from a sentiment of respect for my mother’s character, as described by Eleanor, which does honor to her memory. The world, I believe, never saw a better woman. But it is not often that virtue can boast an interest such as this. The domestic, unpretending merits of a person never known do not often create that kind of fervent, venerating tenderness which would prompt a visit like yours. Eleanor, I suppose, has talked of her a great deal.”
“Yes, a great deal. That is—no, not much, but what she did say was very interesting. Her dying so suddenly, and you—none of you being at home—and your father, I thought—perhaps had not been very fond of her.”
“And from these circumstances,” he replied, his quick eye fixed on hers, “you inferred perhaps the probability of some negligence, some—something still less pardonable?”
She raised her eyes towards him more fully than she had ever done before.
Without hesitation, she placed her little hand in his. Immediately, he turned and walked with her to his mother’s apartment. A moment later, the two were in the middle of the room. Catherine could know no reason why he did this, except to prove to her that her suspicions were wrong.
He said nothing. Instead, he stood before her, both her hands in has. Deeply his blue eyes searched hers, searching for she knew not. She felt her soul open—he knew her every secret, including her love for him.
In a soft voice scarcely above a whisper, he spoke. “Would you like to meet her?”
Catherine blinked. “I… I beg your pardon? Meet who?”
“Your mother!” she cried. “Is not your mother dead?”
A half-smile marked his countenance. He half-turned, never releasing his hold on her hands, and to one of the doors on the far side of the room, he called out softly, “Mother?”
At once, the door opened and a beautiful older woman entered the room. Her face was unlined and her hair a soft shade of gold. Her ivory dress was of an older style, at least twenty years in the past, yet it shown as if the dressmaker had just completed her labors. Her features favored Eleanor, but she shared the same blue eyes as Henry.
The woman looked at a shock-stilled Catherine with intense interest. Her eyes never leaving the girl, she said in a low, throaty voice, “Henry, is this the one?”
“I believe so, Mother,” he answered. Henry turned to Catherine. “Forgive me, my love, but I must know.”
Catherine felt her very mind invaded.
She felt compelled to answer truthfully. “Yes.”
Do you say this of your own free will?
Do you want to stay with me for all time?
“More than anything else in the world.”
Henry turned to the woman. “Yes, Mother. She is the one.”
The woman smiled. “I am so happy for you, my son.” She spoke to Catherine. “Do not fear, my child. A kiss and you will join us for all eternity.”
The woman floated to Catherine’s side, her hands gently cupping the girl’s face. “So pretty, so pure. You have chosen well, Henry. What is your name, sweet child?”
“Welcome to our family, Catherine.” With that, Mrs. Tilney lowered her face to Catherine’s neck.
Catherine’s world went dark.
Catherine sat on the sofa with Henry in Mrs. Tilney’s apartment. They were quite alone, for Mrs. Tilney had retired to her room again. Henry began to tell his bride of their history.
“My mother’s malady,” he continued, “the change which ended in her death, was sudden. At first, we thought it a bilious fever. But she seemed to waste away, and no doctor could cure her. My father, brother, and I remained in almost constant attendance for four and twenty hours. On the fifth day, she died. As her disorder progressed, we saw her repeatedly, and from our own observation can bear witness to her having received every possible attention which could spring from the affection of those about her or which her situation in life could command. Poor Eleanor was absent, and at such a distance as to return only to see her mother in her coffin.”
“But your father?” said Catherine. “Was he afflicted?”
“Immensely. You erred in supposing him not attached to her. He loved her beyond all reason, I am persuaded. I will not pretend to say that while she lived she might not often have had much to bear, but though his temper sometimes injured her, his judgment never did. His value of her was sincere, and he was truly afflicted by her death.”
“I am very glad of it,” said Catherine. “It would have been very shocking!”
Henry laughed. “Not as shocking as it was when she returned to us! Oh, I thought I had gone mad with grief, and my family, too, but it was no ghost. It was my mother, more beautiful than she was in life. Her death killed all illness. She was whole and well.”
“Un-dead, yes. We do not know to this day from where the vampirism came.”
“She shared her gift with you?”
“With all of us—yes.”
Catherine tried to take all the changes in. When she awoke from her swoon in Henry’s arms, she knew her world had changed. She felt new and free. Catherine Morland was no more. Though not yet officially married, she was now Catherine Tilney and would be so forever.
“I do not understand. How can this be? You have been out in the daytime and Eleanor too. I thought the sun was the enemy of vampires. Yet, as I sit here in your arms, watching the sunset, I feel not the least discomfort. And you do not sparkle.”
Henry laughed. “I believe that most of what is written about vampires is rubbish, my love, much like your beloved ‘dreadful novels.’ In actuality, only Mother is a full arch-vampiress. She does not like the full sun all that well. And she can only consume fresh blood—not human, of course,” he hastened to assure her. “She is partial to lamb, but cow’s blood does well enough. The rest of us are gifted with partial-vampirism, like you. We carry on as we always did. The only exceptions are that we age very slowly, we are impervious to normal death, and we like our meat raw.”
“But my meals here—the food was well cooked.”
He smiled. “We suffered so as not to offend your sensibilities, my love.” He grew serious. “You now understand why we are so reserved. We can be destroyed by the frightened and uninformed. A stake to the heart, beheading by a silver blade, that sort of thing. We pose no threat to king and country—in fact, Frederick, being invulnerable, is a great weapon for England—but as we are considered unnatural, we are feared.”
“And your father is gatekeeper to the family secrets?” Catherine stated with new-found prescience.
“Yes. He is perfect for the task, as he is naturally suspicious. It is why Eleanor’s admirer has been held off at arm’s length. We are not certain that the Viscount would accept the price of joining the family.”
“And I was judged worthy?”
Henry smiled. “Yes. Thank you, my love.”
Catherine’s own smile faded. “Henry, what of children?”
“I do not know, love. As we are only half-vampires, we may yet be blessed.” He pulled her into a close embrace. “I do want children with you, Catherine, but that may be denied. Will you hate me if it is so?”
“Never!” she cried. “My life is you, Henry. If that is all I ever have, I will be more than content.” She shivered.
“Catherine, are you well?”
“Never better, Henry. I… I feel so alive! Is it not strange to say that? Yet, I feel…” She blushed. “Henry, may we marry soon?”
Henry’s blue eyes seemed to glow. “Are you… impatient?”
Catherine’s eyes glowed in return. “Yes! You know I am! Such… such feelings course through me! I can hide nothing from you, my darling. I… I feel completely wanton!”
His lips captured hers in a kiss that was so all-consuming that they would have died of suffocation, if they were still fully alive.
The door opened. “Henry? Are you—oh, my!” cried Eleanor.
Henry turned to her, but kept Catherine in a close embrace. “Wish me joy, Sister. Catherine has met Mother!”
“She has?” Eleanor squealed. “How wonderful! Welcome to the family, my dear friend!”
Catherine left her lover’s embrace and turned to her sister. “Thank you, Eleanor. But tell me, is dinner ready? I feel positively ravenous!”
Henry laughed. “Come, darling. We cannot have you starve.”
As they left for the dining room, Catherine said, “And after dinner, we must speak about this viscount of yours, Eleanor. I think we need more gentlemen in the family.” She laughed. “Oh, how right Mrs. Radcliffe is—and how very wrong!”
It takes a real man to write historical romance, so let me tell you a story.