Remember that We are English
A short story inspired by Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

By Jane Greensmith

Copyright © 2001.
 All rights reserved.


A single candle burning on the alter cast a halo of golden light, strong at its center but quickly consumed by the blackness of the chapel’s stone and wood. A young woman, dressed in white, sat motionless in the middle of the second pew. Erect, silently mouthing words as if in prayer, she gazed intently into the eye of the candle. Only a cricket’s chirp pierced the heavy silence of the chilly sanctuary.

A young man, slender, dressed in clergy black, pushed open the chapel’s thick oak door, elaborately carved with crosses, vines, and doves, sending a sharp ray of light from the mild afternoon sun down the aisle. As quickly as the sun swallowed the candle’s light and illuminated the room with its harsh light, it was gone. The man had entered the chapel and pushed the door closed behind him. The echoes of his boots on the stone floor drowned the cricket’s song.

The young woman did not shift or move—not when the man opened the door, not when he sat down beside her. She simply reached out a hand and found one of his. They sat silently, hand-in-hand on the hard pew of the family chapel.

He didn’t look at her tear-stained face. He didn’t try to read her eyes. He knew too well the pain he would see there. Instead, he honored her reverie and followed her gaze to the hot blue center of the flame.

Minutes passed. The cricket sang. Finally the young man spoke. His voice, barely above a whisper, reverberated in the still, close air. "Last night I dreamed of her again."

"You always will." Came the reply, the woman’s voice resigned but not yet bitter. "She will haunt you always. You know this. I’ve told you how it is. She will show you your fear. You will carry this burden until you find the courage to break away. I promise you, she will never let you rest."

And then his sister, for so she was, turned to him, "Henry, you know that Father will discover that Miss Morland is not an heiress. You know that she will be lost to you, as lost to you as Mother is, if you do not face our father. If you do not face your fear."

She started to stand, to leave their sanctuary, but he touched her arm and bid her sit again. Henry took both her hands in his and said urgently. "He is my father, Eleanor. I am his son. I must do as he bids. I will not be a disobedient son…"

"You are coward." She faced him, dark eyes clouded with remorse at being so hurtful to such a dear brother. "There…are you happy? You made me say it. And I’m sorry. But it’s so." Eleanor turned from him. Henry sat motionless, his jaw working mercilessly as he fought to prevent stinging retorts from leaving his lips. He thought of her sagging shoulders, so heavy was the burden she was already carrying, he couldn’t bear to wear her down further with angry words.

She stood up again. This time he did not stay her arm. He did not look up.

"I’m going to find our guest and see if she will walk with me. Perhaps we can have some quiet time together apart from him."

Eleanor walked down the aisle, her slippers muffling her departure. Henry spoke up, "When does he leave?"

She paused at the door, and turned back to her brother still staring at the candle. "In two days." She pulled open the door and once again the chapel was crossed with daylight. "You’ll come to us while he’s away?" He turned to see his sister’s silhouette, backlit and shadowy, moving into the sunlight. "You know we both will crave your company while he’s away."

"I shall be here as much as I can."

The door closed. The candle flickered from the sudden rush of air, and then settled back into a steady burn. The cricket sang.

A coward? A coward. She’s right. I am—God help me—I am.

Here I sit. Hiding in this chapel as if its walls can shield me from my father. This is no sanctuary, just a holding pen. For twenty-six years, I have claimed to be a good son. I have hidden behind the fifth commandment. I have honored my father, who so dishonored my mother.

She comes to me in my dreams. My mother. Eleanor says she haunts me, but her visits don’t scare me as the visits of a specter would. Perhaps because she smiles at me as if I were her golden boy once again. And oh, I want to bury my head on her shoulder and feel safe again.

I was more a man at six than I am at twenty-six. When I was six, I shouted at my father when he made my mother cry. "How dare you scold my mother?" I said once, defending her against my father’s harsh words and biting tongue. I paid for that outburst—I can tell you, I paid—but I was proud of standing tall. It’s been many years since I stood tall.

What did I say to Miss Morland just now, what did I say to my darling, innocent Catherine? I laughed at her for letting her fancy run away. She, with that delightful imagination, merrily scaring herself silly, roaming about the Abbey, imagining all sorts of frightful things. What did I say? …consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. I abused her for imagining that my father, my father, could murder my mother and not be brought to justice, as if we lived in some heathen country. And yet, my dear, sweet girl—he murdered her spirit, and mine too, for I stood by. I didn’t stand tall. And I let her go. I think she was glad to go in the end. She was sick, I know, but she didn’t fight. Not even for Eleanor would she fight to live. And now I am standing by while he does the same to my sister.

How do I conquer the fear that stays my hand and quells my words? The fear that prevents me from giving my sister permanent sanctuary in my house? I know that God will forgive me for dishonoring a dishonorable father. So what is it that I fear? He’s never beat me, not since that day when I was six. He already hurts those I love so it can’t be that. My living is my own. His rage I can handle—truth be known, I can handle that better than his coldness. His coldness? Ah…that’s it. It is his coldness that defeats me. How can a man be so cold? Something triggers him—a flashpoint—and he erupts and then freezes, almost in the same moment. And once he freezes, he’s gone. There’s nothing left to fight, nothing to grab onto, and so we go on…he flashing and freezing and I quivering and quaking until… until Eleanor finally will come to loathe me almost as much as I do myself.

And now Catherine. Eleanor is right. I will lose her, and she loves me. I saw from the first how it would be. When we met in Bath. In every room she entered, her eyes would search me out, willing me to dance with her, daring me to make her laugh, pleading with me to notice her, to love her. I am her knight. I am the golden one who woos her with words and wit and sets her loose with fanciful thoughts. She’s barely more than a child, on the brink of lovely womanhood, and she looks to me to lead her to the promised land. But she doesn’t know that I cannot lead her anywhere. She doesn’t yet know that I can only follow. I have a General for a father and he commands me. I’m no better than my brother in that…just different.

My brother. Captain Tilney. As cold and heartless as my father, yet undisturbed by his nature. I do think my father’s nature troubles him. Not so the Captain. He has no flashpoint. He’s just unrelentingly cold.

Even when we were boys, he never tried to hide his cruel nature. No bird or dog, no rat or insect, no sibling was safe from him. He told me once about fear, now that I think of it. He said that fear is only conquered by a greater fear.

I hated that thought then, and I hate it now. I put it away from me and took the brighter path, believing that fear could be conquered by faith…love…hope. But that path has not served me well—here I sit in a cold chapel still paralyzed with fear. Maybe the Captain is right. What on earth, or heaven or hell, do I fear more than my father’s cold contempt, his icy emptiness?

Once, in a drunken haze, the Captain told me that the only way he could fight in battle was to remember that he feared pain more than death. I remember looking into the empty sockets of his eyes when he said it, and I knew he was telling the truth. He said that fear of pain made him reckless—better to die quickly than to suffer greatly. Recklessness has brought him glory.

Look how low the candle burns. Barely wax enough to keep the wick upright and yet the flame burns as steadily as it did an hour ago. So little wax left. Ah…now the candle sputters. There it goes…now the wick is sinking into the melted pool…and there goes the light. It is dark and cold. I shall have to grope for the door. If I close my eyes, just for a moment…there…and now open them…I can see a little. A glimmer of daylight under the door. Jeweled light from the tiny stained glass windows that freckle the tops of the walls.

I can see the door just faintly. I know it’s there. I will go to home to Woodston. I will visit my neighbors and write sermons and pray with the sick…and try to discover what I fear more than the General.

The rector’s wife sat in the first pew in splendid isolation—her first Sunday as a bride in her husband’s church. And oh, the church at Woodston was lovely. So light and airy that all who came to worship lifted their heads instinctively instead of bowing, as if to feel the grace of the place wash down around them.

Catherine Tilney. Mrs. Tilney. How well that sounds, she thought, stroking her prayer book. She had no idea of the pretty picture she presented to her husband’s parishioners with her dark curls peeping out modestly from under her cap, nestled under her bonnet, her face flushed with the glow of love triumphant. She glanced up shyly at Henry performing the morning’s ritual, still trying to catch his eye…out of habit…still not quite believing he really was her knight.

It was later, after he had declared himself and asked for the heart she had given that first night in Bath, that she discovered some of what he had done for her. Walking on hot coals would have been nothing to what this glorious man had done for her, shabby heroine that she was. He had bearded the lion in his den, had defied the General and told him that Catherine, just as she was, was the woman he would marry. St. George, himself, slaying the dragon couldn’t have been more glorious.

She remembered how he straightened his shoulders as he told her this. How he seemed so much taller and finer even than she remembered.

That first evening, as they walked in the twilight of her parent’s garden, Henry talked and teased his bride-to-be, delighting her with words and delighting in her company, relishing the soft pressure of her hand, tidily tucked inside his arm. A bend in the path took them out of sight of the house where siblings’ eyes had watched from windows the ramblings of their sister and her beloved.

"Look there," Henry said, spying through the trees the crescent moon with Venus nestled in her curve. "Do you know, my love, that the moon is a cold, dead place? From here, it doesn’t look cold, does it?

Catherine shook her head, eyes luminous, curls dancing deliciously. He reached out and tenderly pulled on a curl, then nestled his hand in the nape of her neck, his thumb stroking her cheek.

"It glows because it reflects the sun. Just like Venus there, the smaller light inside the moon’s embrace, reflects the sun."

"Does Earth reflect the sun too?" Catherine asked, her voice trembling, perhaps from learning these interesting scientific facts, perhaps from the proximity of her dear Henry, caressing her in a moonlit garden. "If I were out there," she said, tilting her head back, "would I see the Earth glowing."

"Probably," Henry answered. "But it does not matter, for we make our own light. Our Earth is not a cold, dead body that can only reflect light. Nor is it a star that burns incessantly, consuming itself. We have our own atmosphere that nourishes us and keeps us warm, but not too warm. We have water that bathes our planet and gives it life. I am here with you tonight in this garden because I discovered that I am like the Earth."

Her puzzled look told him that he must continue. He took her hand and led her down the path, until they found a bench, for his was a story that would take some time.

She brushed away petals and leaves to make a clean spot on the stone bench and sat down. Henry paced, hands behind his back. He hadn’t intended to deliver a full confession, but it seemed so natural now to do so. Just as he never intended to fall in love with her, but her adoration had given him pause.

"You saw me as better than I was, better than I am. In truth, better than any man could ever be. I couldn’t bear to think of disgracing myself in your eyes. I didn’t want you to ever think that I would not stand by you. That I would let my father send you away as if you had done something shameful. I did not want you to think that I was not man enough for you." He chuckled, almost to himself. "Perhaps someday, after we are married for awhile, you will grow weary of my ramblings, and wonder what you saw in such a poor, dull fellow..."

She shook her head vehemently and began to protest, but he rested his fingers on her mouth.

"I knew my father was misled in your identity. I knew that eventually he would discover that you were not rich nor ever would be and would forbid me from paying you my addresses. I mistakenly thought that only something more dreadful than my father would spur me to resist his domination. But in my heart I knew that I didn’t want my life with you to be based on fear. Even the fear of losing you, my precious Catherine, seemed the wrong way to live. And so I went on, between Woodston and the Abbey where you were, driving myself crazy with self-doubt and waiting for the axe to drop."

"And then, on a night such as this, I wandered in my garden until I was almost frantic with anxiety. The house was so still and warm that I felt I would suffocate if I went back inside. I loosened my collar and lay down on the ground and looked at the night sky. I remember the grass was damp and scratchy. I listened to the sounds of the garden—the toads croaking and the wingbeat of insects and bats. I watched the moon cross the sky. It was full then, and I gazed at the splotches and shadows on its face, and wondered about its dark side, that we never see. And that’s when I realized that I am my own man—like the Earth, I can reflect the sun but also take it in and use it to nourish my soul. I realized that if I didn’t stand tall I would become as cold and lifeless as the moon, as my brother, as my father. And then I felt the fear simply cease to be."

He laughed outright now at her baffled look. "Ah darling, my sweet young bride. I can see you think you have accepted a lunatic. And so you have, and so you have. For my madness comes from gazing too long at the moon. But it worked. It worked—for here you are and here I am."

"But how did we come to be here?" she asked.

"I must have fallen asleep for the next thing I knew the sun was shining and I heard my name being shouted by my man. I returned to the house to find an express from Eleanor with the news of your eviction from the Abbey. I was like a man possessed. A lunatic! I never thought again about fear. I only thought about being the man worthy of your love."

"And here we are…"

Catherine looked up from her reverie to find Henry’s eyes on her—he wasn’t exactly smiling, but his eyes twinkled as he spoke to her directly, it seemed.

Because she is not yet twenty, perhaps Catherine can be forgiven for letting her mind wander during Henry’s sermon, even though it was the first time she had heard him preach and she was his wife. But the truth is, she had never actually listened to a sermon in her life and the habit of daydreaming during services was too firmly entrenched to be discarded.

Biting her lip and squirming slightly at being discovered inattentive, she endeavored to pay close attention as Henry continued, "And now let us turn from darkness and fear, from ignorance and self-pity, and face our future with faith and hope and courage. When foreign armies threaten our shores and civil unrest beats upon our door, let us stand tall and remember that we are English."

Catherine smiled at Henry. St. George and the dragon—they were nothing compared to a man in black.


The End

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