Our Austen: Fan Fiction in the Classroom
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Whispers at Woodston
Dawn Bullock, Gabriëlle Pinkster, and Ellen Mulder
Catherine Tilney could not be happier. Despite the previous attempts of General Tilney to stop her marriage to his son, she was finally courteously welcomed into his family. Her steps were as light as a feather when she first opened the door to Woodston, a parsonage she could now call herself mistress of. Henry regarded his young wife with much delight as she fluttered through the house deciding on new fittings for the room she had earlier exclaimed to be the prettiest room in the world. Woodston was now her home, and Cathy felt herself to be the perfect mistress. There was no misfortune in the world that could take her happiness away.
Hours, days, and weeks went by as Catherine settled. She was not an idle wife and played her part perfectly. The housemaid adored her mistress, and Henry was utterly pleased with her. On a chilly Wednesday morning Catherine sat in the parlor, overlooking the meadows. She often felt at a loss when Henry was gone. In her hand The Castle of Otranto rested, as her mind wandered to a more eventful afternoon. Ghosts, tyrants, and fair maidens in distress soon occupied her mind, until her housemaid called her from her dreams. “Pardon me, ma’am, but I shall go to the market now to fetch the ribbons for your dress.” Cathy nodded and stretched as she forced herself to awake from her silly dreams. These fantasies caused her trouble before—surely she knows much better now.
The house was quiet. It was so quiet that it hurt Catherine’s ears. To pass the time she decided she would go through the house once more to decide on proper furniture and decoration. Ever since she arrived at the parsonage, this was her favorite private game. These were fantasies that would not harm a soul. She moved from room to room, imagining curtains and tables, oak chairs and chests. As she moved upstairs she was wondering about the paintings lining the wall. They were magnificent, to be sure, but also had an odd feeling about them. Cathy tried to ignore this as she inspected the bedrooms. She was about to move back downstairs when something caught her eye. At the end of the hall she noticed the wall was slightly discolored. A small end table with a vase and fresh flowers hid the bad paintjob.
Catherine frowned as she approached. This wall was certainly a stain on her perfect little parsonage. Suddenly she noticed the wall was not merely of a different color, it was not even a normal wall. In fact, she suspected it was a door made to look like a wall. How odd she had never noticed this before. Slowly, Catherine laid her hand on the wood. Yes, it was definitely wood of a heavy kind. Her fingers slipped down to a handle, which was hidden behind the flowers. “Why,” Catherine thought, “if this was supposed to be hidden then they hid it poorly, to be sure.” Her heart skipped a beat as she thought of what could be on the other side of the wall. Perhaps it is an old storage room with wondrous little things to be found, a small personal treasure room all to herself. Then other thoughts entered her haphazard mind. and she pursed her lips wondering if Henry was perhaps hiding something from her. But no, this could certainly not be true. Henry would never do any such thing. Perhaps the General closed off this room for her. After all, he had things to hide from her before, and perhaps there is something in it he does not wish her to see.
Catherine shook her head at these horrible thoughts. “No,” she told herself, “these fantasies are nonsense. General Tilney never hid anything monstrous from me. My own dreams swept me away.” However, her hand still trembled on the handle. “Come Catherine, just open the door,” she whispered breathlessly to herself. She lowered the handle and pushed, only to find out the door was locked.
Indeed, it was and no matter how hard she tried to push and pull the door would not stir one bit. Tired and disappointed, Cathy went back into the parlor to take up her cherished novel again, hoping that it would give her some ease of mind after all the troubling disturbances of the day. But even Manfred’s grueling circumstances couldn’t take her mind of what just had occurred. They only brought her in even greater distress. What if there was an angry ghost in the parsonage that, as was the case in The Castle of Otranto, did not consider her sweet Henry to be the rightful heir to the property? Cathy’s eye briefly dwelt upon the ceiling above her head, just to be certain that there wasn’t a giant helmet somewhere secretly hanging above them ready to crush her dearly beloved when they weren’t looking. Fortunately for her there wasn’t, but that did not make Cathy’s mind any more at ease. She felt in the very depths of her heart that there was something not right in the house, and a cold shiver went straight through her while she pondered her mind what could be in that room.
A sudden sound at the door made her startle. It was her maid coming back from the market. Never had she been so happy to see her plump sweet face again. “Oh Paula,” Cathy cried in distress, “I’ve been in such agony awaiting your return! There is something that has been troubling me for hours, and I don’t know what to do about it!” Paula immediately hurried up to her and asked her what was wrong. “As I was wandering through the house, I encountered a hidden door I couldn’t open. What could possibly be in there that I’m not allowed to see?” Her maid kneeled down before her and gently took her hand. “Dearest Mrs. Tilney,” she replied, “do not be alarmed. That room was the room of Mrs Bottomly, the General’s widowed aunt, whom he has vowed to take care of ever since his father died. The Parsonage used to be her house. She lived here for over twenty years, until it was time for Mr. Tilney to come and live here. She was a good woman with a kind and warm heart. She left about a month ago. I’m still very sorry that I was at the market when she did, for now I have not been able to say goodbye to her.”
Catherine felt surprised. She had never heard of an aunt Bottomly before; neither had there been an aunt Bottomly to their wedding. “But why is her room closed?” she asked herself out loud. “I really cannot help you with that madam,” Paula responded. “It was Mr. Tilney’s wish that the room was to be closed and concealed, but no one knows why.”
Her Henry’s wishes! Catherine’s mind grew uneasier by the minute. Certainly her maid had been mistaken; it must have been the General who had ordered that the room was to be sealed off, not her Henry. After her maid had quit the room to proceed with her chores, Catherine was left behind in an even greater state of disturbance than she had ever experienced before. A strange situation indeed! Her having never heard of an aunt who apparently had lived here for so many years. And who then had suddenly left the Parsonage in such a hurry. How odd indeed! Unless . . . —Catherine’s feelings of discomfort grew larger and larger—unless aunt Bottomly had never left the parsonage and was still here, locked away in her room. Perhaps she was tied up to the bed, her frightened cries smothered by a piece of cloth! Her heart started beating vehemently. Of course, that must have been what happened. It certainly explained the strange noises that had kept her awake at night, even though she had always perceived them to be nothing more than the wind blowing through the cracks or the cook’s cat that wandered around the house at night.
And it was right there at that moment that Catherine was utterly convinced that there was no other explanation possible than that of an aunt Bottomly being held prisoner against her will by the General in that strange concealed room upstairs, and that there was no other solution than for her to break down the door, save the poor aunt, and to unmask that evil General once and for all. Without any hesitation she ran to the stables where she, after some elaborate searching, was able to get hold of an axe. Trembling with feelings of nervousness, anger, and sensation, Catherine dragged the heavy axe upstairs to the hidden room. Then she stood still for a moment and listened very carefully. From the other side of the door she could now very clearly hear a distinct kind of moaning. Yes, she had been right: aunt Bottomly was definitely in there hoping for her salvation. Cathy took a deep breath, lifted the axe with all the strength she could gather, and hit the door with a loud bang.
“CATHY!” A sudden cry from behind crudely awakened her from the frenzied trance that come over her. And as she looked up her husband was standing behind her with a very disturbed look on his face. “What in God’s name are you doing?” he shouted at her while he grabbed her arm and forcefully took the axe out of her hands. Cathy, scared, and confused, angry, and, especially tired as she now was, suddenly felt tears flowing over her cheeks as she fell down on her knees. Sobbing in the most terrible state of distress, she told her dearest, dearest Henry everything that had happened that day. “My dearest Cathy,” Henry exclaimed, “has your mind run off with you again? What a ridiculous thing to think! There is no such thing as anybody being held prisoner here. My aunt left the parsonage about a week before we got here to settle herself at Northanger Abbey, where she will get all the care and attention she needs. There is nothing in that room but some old furniture that she has left behind. I tried to conceal everything from you simply because I was ashamed of the terrible sight the room would make to you. Honestly my dearest, you shouldn’t worry about it again. Here, I have the key with me in one of my pockets. Let’s put that axe next to the door, and I will show you that there is nothing in there to be anxious about.”
Cathy felt deeply ashamed of what she had done. Having her mind get hold of her like that again! But Henry Tilney kissed her tears away and opened the lock with an easy turn of the key. And Cathy could see that there was nothing strange in that room indeed. The furniture was old and broken, the wallpaper was falling down, and the crimson patterned carpet was covered with a thick layer of dust. “You see my dearest Cathy,” Henry gently whispered into her ear as he locked the door behind them, “there is absolutely nothing to be worried about. Now come here and be a good Cathy. . . .”
Catherine snuggled herself to Henry and closed her eyes. How silly of her to think ill of the General! “My dearest Henry, I am so ashamed of myself!” she exclaimed. Henry cuddled her and said, “There is nothing to be ashamed of, my love. But you must be tired from dragging that heavy axe upstairs. Shall I go to the kitchen and ask Paula to make us a cup of tea while you lie down and get some rest on aunt Bottomly’s bed?” Catherine nodded. She lay down on the bed while Henry walked out of the room. Then Catherine noticed a crimson stain on the bed linen. Very strange indeed! She got up again and examined the stain. It looked like blood! She had been right about the General indeed! Poor aunt Bottomly! How terribly afraid must she have been during the last moments of her life! Catherine’s heart started racing. She remembered the beautiful lilies the General had given them as a wedding present, which were planted in the garden near the garden fence. Her beautiful flower bed must be aunt Bottomly’s grave! Catherine started sobbing. She knew the General would be visiting them the next day because he had business to do in Woodston. Her despair grew larger by the minute. She must think of a plan before it was too late . . .
Then Henry came into the room again, followed by Paula, who had a tray with two cups of tea on it. The cups of tea had been a good idea indeed! The last time they had been at Northanger Abbey, Henry had taken some of his dear mother’s heavy soporifics with him, which she needed against the pain during the last days of her life. This would make everything a lot easier. It had been such a mess with aunt Bottomly and the axe! Catherine would not feel anything of the overdose of soporific in her cup of tea and would just subside into a very, very deep sleep . . .
The next day the General came to the parsonage to visit them. It was such a nice weather that they decided to sit outside, on the bench near the garden fence. While Henry and the General were discussing the latest news from Northanger Abbey, Paula walked outside with a tray with cups of tea and mince pie on it. She put it on the table next to the garden bench. “I have never eaten such a delicious pie in my life!” the General exclaimed while he took a bite of the pie. “It has such a peculiar taste to it. Can I have the recipe for the cook at Northanger Abbey?” “Maybe some other time,” Henry said. “I am sure Cathy must have it somewhere. It was her parents’ recipe.” “Where’s Catherine?” the General asked. “She went to the market,” Henry said. “She wanted to get some more flowers for the garden.” He pointed to the two fresh flower beds . “Cathy loves lilies.” “That’s a pity,” the General said. “I had hoped to encounter her here. I wanted to make my excuse for what happened at Northanger Abbey when I sent her away. I should have known better. I regret it deeply. She is a very lovely woman. I am glad to have her in the family indeed!”
After the General had left, Henry Tilney walked inside to Paula. “My dear Paula,” he said. “I love you so much. Now we can live happily here for the rest of our lives. It is very plausible that Catherine must have had a nervous breakdown. She always had such strange thoughts about my family! We will just tell everybody that during one of her manias she must have walked away from the parsonage into the woods and got lost there. As I am a widower now, nobody will ever complain that I should marry again. Now come here and be a good Paula . . .”
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