A few days later, the General announced that he had to go to London on business for a week. As he was leaving, he said, ‘Miss Morland, more than anything, I regret that I will be robbed of your charming company for a whole week. I have instructed Eleanor and Henry to look after you, and I hope you will tell them if there is anything they can do to make your stay more amusing or more comfortable.’
The General’s departure gave Catherine her first understanding of the principle that a loss may sometimes be a gain. The three young people had much more fun without General Tilney in control of their lives. Every meal was a scene of enjoyment and ease, and every day was spent as the three wished. These delightful days made our heroine love the place and the people more and more.
Catherine was now in the fourth week of her visit and had never been happier. But the fact that she had been there for almost a month made her wonder whether it was polite to stay any longer, or whether she should suggest choosing a date for her return to Fullerton. Although it was an unpleasant subject, Catherine took the first opportunity to speak to Eleanor about it.
‘Dear Eleanor, I think I must return home soon.’
‘Oh, Catherine,’ Eleanor began with feeling, ‘I had hoped for the pleasure of your company for a much longer time. If your parents knew how much we enjoyed having you here, do you think they might allow you to stay a bit longer?’
‘Oh, my parents are in no hurry to have me at home. They are always satisfied if I am happy.’
‘Then why are you in such a hurry to leave us?’ asked Eleanor with a worried look on her face.
‘But I have been here so long!’ Catherine cried.
‘If you have grown tired of being here, I cannot urge you to stay,’ Eleanor said sadly.
‘Oh, no, you misunderstand me! For my own pleasure, I would be very happy to stay another four weeks, but I do not wish to become a nuisance.’
‘Catherine, it is settled then. You must not think of leaving us. Henry and I will be very sad to lose you, so you must stay as long as possible.’
Eleanor’s desire for her to stay longer at Northanger Abbey was so sincere that it confirmed Catherine’s secret belief that the Tilneys hoped she would belong to their family one day.
Henry’s obligations at Woodston took him away during his father’s absence, but Catherine continued to be happy because it gave her time to get to know Eleanor better and to enjoy her company. On the evening of Henry’s departure, the young ladies were still sitting and chatting at the dinner table at eleven o’clock, a rather late hour at the Abbey. Then as they walked to their bedrooms, they heard a carriage arrive outside, and in the next moment they heard the loud noise of the doorbell.
‘Who could that be at this late hour?’ wondered Eleanor. ‘It must be Frederick. I will say good night, dear Catherine, and go downstairs to welcome him.’
Catherine went into her room, thinking about meeting Captain Tilney the next morning at breakfast. She hoped that he would not mention Isabella’s name, or the part he had played in her brother’s unhappiness. She thought she could be polite to him as long as no one talked about Bath.
Half an hour later, Catherine heard someone come up the stairs and then her door opened very gently. Eleanor came into her room, looking pale and quite nervous. Catherine worried that Captain Tilney was in some kind of trouble and made Eleanor sit down.
After a minute or two of silence, Miss Tilney said, ‘My dear Catherine, I have come to you with bad news. And I do not know how to tell you about it. Oh, how shall I tell you?’
‘Has something happened to Henry? Is there a messenger from Woodston downstairs?’
‘No, it is not anyone from Woodston. My father himself has arrived.’ Eleanor’s voice shook and she looked at the carpet when she said, ‘my father’.
Catherine was disappointed to know that General Tilney had returned early, but she waited for Eleanor to explain more.
‘You are so good and kind, a friend who will understand how difficult this is for me, especially after we had happily agreed that you would stay for another four weeks. I am an unwilling messenger who has to tell you that we must part. My father has remembered that we accepted an invitation to go to Lord Longtown’s house, near Hereford, for a fortnight. We leave on Monday. Explanation and apology are equally impossible. My heart is too heavy to attempt either.’
‘My dear Eleanor, don’t be distressed. I am very, very sorry that we must part so soon, but I am not offended. An earlier engagement must take priority, and I can finish my visit later, or you can come to me at Fullerton after Hereford.’
‘It will not be in my power to do that,’ Eleanor said quietly. ‘Come to Fullerton when you can, then.’
Eleanor did not respond to this suggestion, and Catherine continued, ‘Monday is very soon. And are you all going? Don’t worry, Eleanor, I can be ready to go on Monday morning. We can be together until it is time for you to depart. It will not bother my parents if I show up unannounced on Monday evening. The General will send a servant with me, I imagine, for half the trip, and then I will be at Salisbury and only nine miles from home.’