"I never expected to see you thus, Tilney," declared his friend.
Henry Tilney turned away from the window, where he had been watching the passersby hurrying through the swirling mists of London. "Forgive me, Darcy," he said, trying bravely to smile. "Even after four months, everything is still very fresh."
Fitzwilliam Darcy shook his head at the younger man. "I think I must meet this Miss Morland," he said with a smile. "Any young woman that can lay Henry Tilney so low must be formidable indeed."
Henry laughed. "Catherine, formidable?" He turned back to the window and sighed. "On the contrary. She is the sweetest girl in the world."
"Did you hear that, Bingley?" asked Darcy, turning to the third man in the room. " 'The sweetest girl in the world.' Think you that our old friend would ever fall so hard for 'the sweetest girl in the world'? Indeed, think you that he would ever utter the phrase 'the sweetest girl in the world?' He who finds such hyperbolic superlatives worthy of his highest wit!"
Charles Bingley had truthfully been thinking that it must be wonderful to love a young lady as much as Henry seemed to love Miss Morland, but he said only, "I would like to meet her as well, Tilney. When do you propose to introduce us to your bride?"
Henry laughed. "Not until we are safely married, you dog." He paused for a moment, then added bitterly, "Whenever that may be." There was an uncomfortable silence; Henry's two friends were acquainted with his circumstances, his father's refusal to allow his marriage to the woman he loved. Although they teased Henry about Catherine, his friends had too high a regard for his taste, and too intimate a knowledge of General Tilney's temper, to think for a moment that the General's harsh assessment of Henry's fiancée was warranted.
"Tell us about her, Tilney," said Darcy. He was trying desperately to keep up his old friend's spirits and failing abysmally. He exchanged a worried glance with Bingley. "Is she accomplished?"
"Of course she is," said Bingley heartily. "All young ladies are accomplished! Miss Tilney is very accomplished," he added with a small sigh that amused Henry greatly even in the midst of his distress. Bingley had long carried a torch for Henry's sister, Eleanor, albeit in vain; her heart belonged to another. Henry suspected that Bingley's tendre for Eleanor was simply an old habit, one that would be abandoned when another pretty young lady crossed his path.
"There we must part company, Bingley," Darcy declared. "I have an extremely exacting definition of an accomplished woman. Well, Tilney? Do you think Miss Morland would fit that definition?"
"No, Darcy," said Henry, "Catherine is not your type at all. She is sweet, direct, warm-hearted, and not at all accomplished."
"You astonish me, Tilney. I had such high hopes for you," Darcy teased. "If you were not such an impudent rogue, I may even have let you marry Georgiana when she was old enough."
"You can bestow no higher compliment," cried Henry, bowing gallantly. "Miss Darcy is lovely and accomplished indeed, but she is not my Catherine." He laid one hand on Darcy's shoulder and one on Bingley's. "Thank you, my friends," he said softly. "I understand what you are trying to accomplish, but I think I simply need time to get used to the idea that Catherine and I must be apart." He drew a deep breath. "It is difficult to be alone at Woodston. My solitude preys upon me." He paused and turned away, pacing restlessly and running a hand through his tousled brown curls. "I see Catherine in every room, looking about her in wonder and delight as she did when she called on me there, never realizing that I already envisioned her as its mistress." He turned back to the other men, smiling affectionately. "Thank you, Darcy, for inviting me to visit you here in town. The society of my oldest friends could do me nothing but good. But I think I must be getting back to Woodston before my curate revolts. Besides, I have a Newfoundland puppy that I am training to retrieve, and he is making great progress."
Darcy and Bingley exchanged another glance. "I have a suggestion that may help take your mind away from your troubles," said Bingley. "You know that I have been looking for an estate to purchase." Henry nodded. "I have found one in Hertfordshire called Netherfield. I am only leasing it for now, but I have an option to purchase it. The grounds are rich in game, and I have the warrant, so there will be sport. The neighbours are delightful people. I will be returning the day after tomorrow, and Darcy, my sisters, and Louisa's husband Hurst will join me. Do come along, Tilney," he cried, grasping his friend's arm earnestly. "I would sincerely like for you to come along. And you must bring your Newfoundland. There will be plenty of birds for him to chase." He hesitated. "And perhaps you will not be so oppressed by your memories."
Henry smiled down at Bingley's eager face. "How can I spurn such an invitation?" he laughed. "Yes, I will come along, Bingley, if my curate's schedule allows. Is there an M.P. or a lord about the neighbourhood who is willing to frank my letters? I plan to inundate Catherine with epistles and I would not have the poor girl using up her dowry in postage."
"I shall provide for you as best I can," Bingley promised, and the young men began to form plans for their removal to Hertfordshire.
They had met at Eton, where Henry had arrived at the age of twelve, frightened as the new boys always are, but displaying a brave fašade that inspired Darcy's sincere admiration. Frederick Tilney, exercising three years' seniority, tormented his younger brother with impunity. Darcy considered the elder Tilney a bully, and he stepped between Frederick and Henry when the former attempted to thrash the latter for some small infraction. Darcy was the party administering the thrashing that day, and when Frederick crept away to lick his wounds, a considerably impressed Henry asked Darcy if he would instruct him in boxing.
Darcy had studied pugilism since boyhood and was glad to pass his knowledge on to the younger man. The students did not have a great deal of spare time, but what they had was spent in instruction and learning of the sweet science. Henry was a quick study, but still small; Darcy, at fifteen already tall and rangy, defeated him easily in their practice matches. He respected the younger boy far too much to allow him a victory that he did not earn.
Two years later, Darcy had moved on to Oxford, and Henry Tilney was in a position to perform the same office for Charles Bingley that Darcy had performed for him. Bingley's slavish gratitude had endeared him to Henry, who never scorned sincere adoration from his fellow human beings.
Henry eventually followed Darcy to Oxford. By that time he had reached his full height of six feet, his shoulders had broadened, and his strength had developed by constant practice, and at last Henry Tilney defeated Fitzwilliam Darcy in a sparring match. Darcy took his defeat with good grace and a determination to never let it happen again.
The friendship, and occasional competition, had continued as they pursued their lives after Oxford. Henry had introduced Darcy and Bingley to one another, and they had become instant friends, both being eldest sons from the north of England; however, they did not scorn their old friend Tilney, who had taken orders and been named to a family living in Gloucestershire. Henry sometimes suspected that Darcy also enjoyed the warm regard that radiated from Bingley like fire from the sun, and this evidence of Darcy's vanity amused him greatly. Henry Tilney had few vices, but one of them was his tendency to indulge himself overmuch in the foibles of others.
He was also amused at the pursuit of his friends by bright-eyed young ladies and their anxious mammas, whom Henry swore could sniff the two young men's fortunes from across a crowded ball-room. Henry was extremely popular as well, being unfailingly witty and charming and an excellent dancer into the bargain, but the ladies usually abandoned him for his richer friends when the dreaded words "younger son" were uttered. And then he had met Catherine.
Henry could not really identify what he had found attractive about the young lady whom Mr. King had introduced that night at the Lower Rooms in Bath. Her admiration was obvious, and had never wavered, even in the face of his father's embarrassing solicitude. Henry knew perfectly well that General Tilney's assumptions about Catherine's expectations were false, but he sincerely enjoyed her company, and it would not have served his interests to correct his father's ideas. He wanted to know more about this sweet, serious girl, and he wished to promote her budding friendship with Eleanor. His sister had so few real friends.
Henry had been fascinated with baby Eleanor, born when he was two years old, and he had spent a great deal of time with her. When she had been old enough to toddle about, he had held her hand and helped her; when she had been old enough to play, he had joined in her games; when she had been old enough to learn to read, he had taught her. Henry saw hints of Eleanor in Catherine, and was not terribly surprised when they became friends. And when the General had banished Catherine from Northanger, Henry had ridden all day to ask for her hand, half-fearing that his father's mad ideas had prejudiced her against him forever but ultimately trusting in her warm heart. And his trust had not been mislaid.
The General had not sanctioned the marriage, and the Morlands regretfully refused their permission as well. It was not that they did not like or trust Mr. Tilney, they explained, but they could not allow a marriage that his father had forbidden. They understood that the late Mrs. Tilney had ensured that her son had a comfortable fortune independent of his living, but they could not brook disrespect to his living parent. However, when the General gave his blessing, they were prepared to do so as well. Henry had understood completely, although Catherine's tears had rent his heart.
The lovers engaged in a clandestine correspondence, which helped to soften the torments of absence, but as the weeks turned into months and the General showed no signs of retreating from his entrenched position, Henry's innate charm dimmed into something like melancholy. The increasingly despondent tone of his letters had alarmed his old friends, and Darcy had hastened to invite him to stay at his townhouse in London.
And now to Hertfordshire, Henry thought as he drove his curricle toward Woodston, there to gather his clothes and guns and dog. I do not expect to find anything there that will make me stop longing for Catherine, but perhaps it will distract me for a time. Anything is better than being at Woodston, alone with my memories.