Posted on 2014-07-31
Note to readers: The titular night occurs at the end of -- and immediately following -- Northanger Federated Chapter 15. It was originally posted after Northanger Federated Chapter 19.
Henry Tilney had always considered himself upright and decent. He strived to live within the confines of rules established for him by society, his family and himself. Should there ever be a conflict between the different sets of approved behaviors, however, he always sided with himself. Always that seemed the strictest course, the finest, clearest line.
He was, in that respect, unique among the men in his family. His brother, Dick, used to tease him that he had missed his calling when he started his advanced degree. Surely Henry would feel more at home in a seminary than at a business school. Henry had retorted that Dick would make a much better gigolo than a pilot, to which his elder brother joked that there was less difference between the two professions than an outsider might suspect.
Every so often his brother or father presented him with such an obvious moral lapse that his initial reaction was to doubt he had heard them correctly. And when it became unavoidably clear that their internal compasses were broken or at least dangerously skewed, it was Henry who had to deal with all the soul-searching they did not attempt.
The case in point this time was Kitty Morland, Henry's secretary, who was at present with his sister Ellie. The two girls were on a quiet girls' night out. They were going for a couple of drinks and for Ellie to mend her heart after being jilted in spectacular fashion by Morris Fielding. It was necessary for Ellie to have a good time tonight, to prove to herself that her heart was bruised but not broken. Henry was not invited.
The three of them -- Ellie, Kitty, and Henry -- had gone out every night this week, usually for dinner and dancing, and Henry had been glad to spend the last remaining night of their trip having a quiet evening alone wading through the debris from his father's latest bombshell.
His father had called him at the office of Woodston Women's Clothing that morning. Henry had already spoken with the old man earlier in the week but the call had been meaninglessly brief; neither man had been in a talkative mood. And so Henry should have known to expect another call at some point, but with each day that he didn't hear word from Northanger Federated, the New York department store became more abstract and he became more settled into his current living arrangements in California. Flying home tomorrow would be something of a shock. The thought of walking into the Northanger offices on Monday, and seeing Kitty Morland sitting behind her desk without seeing her earlier at the breakfast table filled him with an odd sadness. And he hadn't known how to classify it until just recently.
Thomas Tilney had phoned superficially to discuss the deal to buy Woodston. Henry had made a good report; it was miraculous the difference made by a good secretary. But the old man quickly moved onto his next topic.
Henry had feared that his father would quiz him about Ellie, to see if she was keeping out of trouble, because he didn't know what he could say that wasn't a lie yet wouldn't wrap the noose around his sister's neck. Her flirtations with Morris Fielding had very nearly ended in disaster, as evidenced by the marks on Henry's own knuckles and the large checks he had written to quiet Fielding and The Arrow Club.
But instead of asking about his own daughter, Mr. Tilney had asked about Henry's secretary. Inwardly relieved, he had praised her, calling her crackerjack and joking that one of Woodston's senior partners was acting covetous.
"I did not send her to California to have some johnny-come-lately steal her out from under you," the old man had barked in an unexpected turn. "Do you have any idea how much she's worth?"
It was a curiously worded question, and Henry felt he was having two separate conversations with his father.
"After all the trouble we've had with this deal," he responded, trying to be light, "believe me, I know a good secretary is worth her weight in gold."
The old man's reaction was swift. "She's an heiress, you fool! Aubrey Petroleum! Her family's steeped in Texas oil. She's the only child of an only child and her inheritance probably dwarfs that of all my children combined. And you call her a good secretary!"
It was obvious that Thomas Tilney was appalled by his son's lack of intelligence. But it was equally obvious to Henry that Kitty was no heiress. She had confessed to knowing of the other Catherine Morland, a spoiled girl if the stories were to be believed, but naturally their paths never crossed. They weren't even in the same orbits. In fact, the only things they had in common were their name and being close in age. In personality, work ethic, character, financial worth, and even hair color, they were as far apart as two girls could be. And if Henry had to choose between them, it really was no contest which Miss Morland he preferred.
He remained dumbstruck as his father continued. "I didn't finagle a trip to the West Coast for the two of you to have it come to naught. You've had a week to romance her: dinner and dancing, that sort of thing. I even had Eleanor go along so you'd have some excuse to let her stay at the house with you. You're a handsome fellow, son. She was probably half in love with you before you left. Finish the job before Monday or I'll let Richard take a crack at her."
His father's crassness curdled his stomach: seduce his secretary or his brother would. Whether she was rich or penniless made it no less reprehensible, but the vileness was compounded because his father had mistaken her for someone else. Had she been who Thomas Tilney thought she was, Henry had half a mind to tell Kitty the distasteful scheme and let her bring down her family's wrath on his father's head. But her circumstances were not grand. Her family did not have enough influence to see justice done, even justice for a failed plot.
Henry had tried to live on the straight and narrow. It might make him boring and dull to some, but also moral and honorable. There were lines he did not cross. He didn't take advantage of people like that. On the other hand, Henry had no doubt that Richard would do their father proud, until Kitty's true identity was revealed. Richard was a good soldier -- a decorated war hero, in fact -- but he obeyed orders with the morality of a feral animal.
"What if..." He stopped. He was treading on thin ice. "What if you were misled with respect to her fortune?"
"I don't have the pleasure of understanding you, Henry." There was an unspoken warning in that statement.
"It's just she doesn't act like she comes from sacks of money." He buried his head in his hand. Convincing his father to abandon his machinations for Kitty without exposing her true financial situation was like threading a needle in the dark.
"She's from Texas," the old man explained. "I heard her father speak at a political fundraiser once, and she sounds just like him. They call it being plain spoken down there. But if the money's gone, then she's got a lot of nerve coming to Northanger and setting her cap at one of my sons."
Henry knew better than to point out that his father was guilty of the same thing, and worse. Thomas Tilney was not a man for soul searching or second guessing. That instinct served him well in business but it had led him astray in this instance. Henry also knew what it meant for Kitty as soon as his father discovered the truth. Henry would do all in his power to protect her from that fate.
Before they had left him alone, the girls had promised to be home by midnight.
To outward appearances Henry stayed up to wait for them, but he wore a path in the floor pacing as he tried to figure out what to do about Kitty.
The old man hadn't been wrong when he claimed that she was already half in love. Kitty had never attempted to tell Henry how she felt -- and he respected her silence -- but her feelings had a way of making themselves known despite her best intentions to keep them to herself. She still blushed and smiled and looked at him with those big eyes like he was absolutely wonderful. In some ways, it resembled the school girl crushes Ellie's friends would sport whenever one joined the Tilney family for holidays. There were important differences, however: the girls always made their interest known in ways guaranteed to embarrass both parties; and the girls were just that -- girls -- and no amount of lipstick or perfume would convince Henry that he should treat them as anything more than children.
In his early twenties, it had bordered on obscene to recognize infatuations from fifteen-year-olds, but at 26 he could not manage the same distaste against a similar devotion from an adult. Kitty Morland might not be the most worldly or clever person he had ever met, but she was plainly an adult: a grown woman with a bad habit, through no fault of her own, of getting in over her head.
Kitty worried him at times and so he took steps to alleviate that worry. He made her laugh. He set her at ease. He helped her out of the corners she somehow painted herself into. And, yes, on occasion, he flirted with her. It made her blush such a pretty shade that he couldn't help himself. He might fluster her but he didn't think Kitty truly minded.
It came out of the blue when his sister told him to stop. Ellie didn't explicitly state that Kitty had asked her to intercede, but Ellie was clear that Henry's attention was attracting attention of its own. Of course his interest in Kitty wasn't serious -- nobody thought it was! -- but if Henry wasn't careful he could end up with a reputation as a playboy just like his elder brother, never mind what people might think of Kitty for being on the receiving end.
Chastened by his sister, Henry had stopped. For two days he had restrained himself behind a screen of formality, and been miserable. Kitty, too, had been surprised and a little hurt by his distance which led him to believe Ellie's warning had come from Ellie alone. He didn't precisely throw that caution to the wind after that, but he allowed himself to relax into his old ways again. Some habits were too comfortable and pleasant to break.
From then on, Henry had been too content with the situation to question it. In trying to restore their old balance, he slightly overshot the mark. He realised that now. Some of the things he had said and done after that spoke of an interest that extended beyond a professional relationship or casual flirtation. How could he not have realized? Ellie said nothing, which should have tipped him off that she was paying too much attention to Morris Fielding, but he himself had been too distracted to notice. And when Ellie's happiness blew up in their faces, Henry had felt something for Kitty then, or began to be aware of what he had already been feeling, or began tentatively to hunt for a name for it. He had dearly wanted to delve into that riddle fully but it was an exercise for two and Kitty was distracted, her mind naturally on other things. The opportunity had slipped away.
He looked forward to the next chance, confident it would not be long in coming. But then his father called the next morning, exposing his plan and ensuring it would never come to pass.
Midnight came and went, but the girls did not come home.
From the beginning, Thomas Tilney had taken an unexpected interest in Kitty. Henry had noticed it, but had assumed it was due to Kitty's friendship with Ellie. Although, again, why he was eager to promote a friendship between his daughter and a working-class secretary had been a mystery. And while Henry had spent his energy trying to make sense of that red herring, it had been his father's real goal to spark an office romance between an heiress and one of his sons in the hopes of securing for him all the concomitant financial and social benefits that came with marrying well.
Mr. Tilney had observed Kitty's fashionable, new clothes without realizing that she hadn't been able to afford them on her own. He had driven to her ritzy address without hearing that she only lived there temporarily as a house sitter. He had noticed her name and imagined a resemblance to a wealthy family that didn't exist.
That Kitty was not who his father believed her to be, Henry took as the gospel truth. Had the old man bothered to ask Kitty, she would have set him straight immediately, but having decided he knew who she was, it was beneath him to confirm it. And so they had all continued in blissful ignorance, unaware how tenuous their happiness was. They were each, in fact, unaware of a great many facts that others took for granted. There had to be a finite number of Catherine Morlands in the world, but there was at least one more than his father had counted on.
Mr. Tilney's hope of snagging an heiress for his son had not gone according to plan, but it had gone undetected. Kitty wasn't rich. They didn't have an office romance. Henry hadn't known what they had, if called to testify. Kitty had a crush and he had a growing appreciation. If Henry engaged in a little self-deception, it hadn't mattered until his father revealed his design.
At one in the morning, there was no sign of the girls.
But what was Henry to do now? As soon as Mr. Tilney discovered Kitty's true origins, he'd fire her. It was indecently out of line, but Henry knew that was how the old man's hypocritical mind worked. For Henry to allow that to happen was unconscionable but how was he to prevent it?
He couldn't invent her a fortune and pedigree to satisfy Mr. Tilney's ambitions. His only hope was to find her another job before his father found out, although not with Northanger Federated. That was out of the question! She'd be safe in a competing store's offices, where they would chalk up the old man's howling diatribes to sour grapes. She'd be better still in another city: Philadelphia, Chicago, even here in Hollywood. He'd lose her certainly, and for her sake he'd better lose her fast.
But that was the crux of it: he didn't want to get rid of her; not now, not soon, not for a good long while. Not even to a better situation, if he could wallow in his selfishness for a moment. He wanted her in his life. Henry had his father to thank for that, much as the old man would resent it. But it all combined into an impossible situation. She might be half in love him, he might by half in love her, but "might" was a fragile, half-imaginary word. They had made no binding promises, they had reached no mutual understanding. How could they, when he had just begun to understand it himself? He had come to the edge of a great discovery only to learn he had come too late.
That grim thought had him pacing long past two o'clock, when the girls still had not come home.
He woke up to a sound of a car door closing and realized he had dozed off on the sofa. He got up immediately and went to the front door, shaking off his sleepiness as he walked. He swung the door open to discover his sleeping sister being carried in Howard Ashley's arms.
"What happened?" he said after he recovered from the shock.
Howard shifted his burden slightly. "She's just asleep, Henry. She's perfectly fine, but she is getting heavy. Let me put her in bed and I'll explain as soon as I'm done." Howard began to move past him.
"Wait," Henry stopped him. "Where's Kitty?" The last thing he needed right now was to misplace her.
Howard nodded in the direction of the taxi. "She's paying the fare. She'll be right in."
Henry left Howard to tend to Ellie and went outside to check on Kitty. He found her standing on the other side of the driveway as the cab drove off. She had her back to him and her head tilted up. She seemed content to stand, swaying slightly in a nonexistent breeze, and look out upon the night.
He walked out to join her, not knowing what to say. He had felt close to an insight earlier, but now it had slipped away from him like a dream. He stood next to her and she smiled up at him. "Look Henry: the stars of Hollywood!" She threw out her arms to the inky sky. "Aren't they beautiful? I haven't seen stars like this since I left home." Her pronunciation was off, her accent more rural than he remembered. She was drunk, but she was right. New York was not a city for stargazing.
"Kitty, do you know how late it is?"
She giggled. "Is it very late? I think they lied to me, Mr. Ashley and Ellie. It was a conspiracy!" She laughed harder at her gullibility and drama. "It's after midnight, right?"
Well, that absolved her of whatever tomfoolery had caused them to be so late. He sighed and folded his arms across his chest. She would regret her choices in the morning, but for now she could enjoy the stars.
He had almost resolved to tell her his father's erroneous belief but she was, not to put too fine a point on it, lit. Even were she church-sober, she might get the idea to confess her true circumstances and trust in her own abilities and the inherent goodness of man to carry the day. It would probably work with anyone except the old man when his son's future was at stake, especially since he had already decided she was rich.
She rested a hand on his shoulder. He felt his world slip sideways as she pressed a kiss to his cheek. It was brief. She stopped almost as soon as she began.
"Oh, awful!" she cried. "You're prickly! Henry, why are you so prickly?"
He covered the stubbly spot on his cheek with his hand, capturing the ephemeral sensation for as long as possible. "It's my beard," he responded by rote, his mind still dizzy.
"Since when have you been growing a beard?" she asked. She always remembered him as clean-shaven.
"Since puberty," he quipped, his wit slowly returning.
"Well, you need a shave," she told him matter-of-factly.
Henry was planning on having one in another four hours or so. He didn't really need one now, did he? Would she still be pressing kisses onto his cheeks if they were smooth?
There were no answers to his questions. Kitty, having taken her fill of the night sky, turned on her heels and walked an uneven line into the house. After being caught flat-footed for a moment, he trailed after her. From the general direction of her amble, she was going to bed. He took her by the arm and gently steered her.
"Where are we going?" Kitty asked, offering no resistance. She was entirely too trusting as a rule. He should probably speak to her about that.
"To the kitchen," he answered. "To get you a drink." Diluting the alcohol now would save her some part of a hangover tomorrow.
"Haven't I had enough to drink already?" she complained.
He had no argument with that. "Some water," he clarified.
He rummaged through the cabinet for a glass, filled it from the tap, and pressed it into her hand.
"Now what precisely happened tonight?" asked Henry. "You were supposed to take Ellie out for a couple of drinks and be home by midnight. You've plainly had more than a few and it is after three."
Kitty finished her water before replying. "It was all Miss Corwyn's fault. She showed up and commandeered the whole evening until I ran into Mr. Ashley. She made me drink shots, Henry. Ellie, too."
He shouldn't laugh, he really shouldn't. "I should think you know better than to let Miss Corwyn call the tune." He refilled her glass.
"Oh, but I do," Kitty assured him despite the evidence to the contrary. "She's perfectly wretched. She says you like me."
That admission caused some alarm. "Of course I like you," he stated warily. Kitty was his secretary, she was Ellie's friend. His father's hopes notwithstanding, Henry was allowed to like her. It made perfect sense for him to do so. Whoever heard of a man hating his secretary? That wouldn't be productive at all.
"I know!" She gulped down her water. "I know, I know. You're a good man, Henry Tilney. A very, very, very good man." He wondered how many cocktails were behind each very.
"It's just that," Kitty continued with a shake of her head, "it's just that Miss Corwyn laid a trap at Woodston for Mr. Reid and you walked into it."
Henry felt himself go on alert. Reid had already offered Kitty a job at the California store when the deal with Northanger was finalized. Kitty had refused, but perhaps Reid was not done asking. Perhaps, for Kitty's sake, she ought to consider moving to California.
"What's this about Reid?" he asked.
Kitty sighed and set down her glass. "Miss Corwyn messed up my hair and Mr. Reid was supposed to fix it," she explained. "That was supposed to mean he was in love with me. But you did it instead so now she thinks you're in love with me."
"Of course I--" He stopped before he got himself into trouble.
He remembered the incident from today, just before lunch. The men had filed out of the conference room and Kitty had been standing there looking like some poor refugee from a newsreel: a pencil clenched in her teeth, her arms full of files, her updo tumbling down and little smears of dust across her forehead. She had looked adorable.
He had stepped forward without thinking to set her to rights. He had pulled the loose strands of hair back into position, running his fingers through her hair to smooth it. When she had fidgeted, he had cupped her chin to still her. She had kept her eyes downcast, unwilling to meet his gaze.
Henry had thought of his father's mercenary intentions, still fresh in his mind from a few hours before, and felt his ears turn red.
Mr. Dunwoody spoiled the moment by announcing he was ready for lunch. As Henry came around to his surroundings, he was secretly glad for it. Certain epiphanies shouldn't happen at the office. They were rough enough in the small hours of the morning in the privacy of one's home.
"I like you, too," Kitty said and patted his cheek. "But I don't like your prickles. Won't you shave for me, Henry?"
It was a bad idea and Henry rightfully refused.
Kitty patted his cheek once more in disappointment, then brushed a lock of hair off his forehead. The gesture was both lazy and intimate, and his skin tingled where her fingertips had touched his scalp.
"Please don't do that again," he said quietly. He was overcome with the impropriety of the situation: it was too late; they were too alone; she was too drunk. He shouldn't be tempted but he was, and he didn't have enough willpower for two.
She thought he was being funny, or at least amusingly hypocritical. "Are you the only one here allowed to fix other people's hair, Mr. Tilney?" The title should have given him comfort, but she spoke in a teasing tone, not distant or deferential. "Your hair's gone all ruffly. You look out of sorts."
Whether it was her own attempts to smooth his hair, or his brief nap on the sofa, he did look a little unkempt and his stubble only added to the picture. Despite his admonition against it, she ran a hand through his hair again. Her fingers traced crooked lines from temple to nape where they came to rest.
He shut his eyes as a chill ran down his spine and waited for a sense of disorientation to pass. It was as if a void had opened up behind him, one more border not to cross. He felt like a man trapped at the edge of a precipice. To move forward, toward Kitty, was out of the question. Henry had always stayed within the rules before but now he had simply run out of room to maneuver.
Then came a gentle pressure, a lifeline of sorts, as Kitty's hand guided him away from that nothingness behind him. Whatever line it was that he had drawn for himself, she crossed it for him with a featherweight kiss on his lips. At the second kiss, his hands itched to rest on her waist. By the third kiss (but who was counting?) he had mentally moved that line to somewhere else in the house.
"Henry, I think Miss Corwyn was right. I think you are in love with me after all," she grinned up at him, practically purring.
"For argument's sake, let's say that I am," he agreed, immensely pleased. He caressed her neck with his thumb. She had strictly, repeatedly forbidden him from kissing that area; his stubble was too coarse against her skin.
"Oh, let's not argue," Kitty pleaded.
"Then I shall be more direct and less quarrelsome. I love you." And at that moment, he felt his world slip again, locking into a new position. Old boundaries were swept away as new lines were drawn. He celebrated by kissing her.
"Henry, I do believe you love me," she said when finally swayed by his testimony. "Almost as much as I love you." As an afterthought, she added, " And just as much as Mr. Ashley loves Ellie."
His brow wrinkled as that comment sunk in. "Howard?" he asked. "He's in love with my sister?" He had noticed his friend's appreciation before, but Howard stopped short of making a nuisance of himself with Ellie. And besides, there had been Morris Fielding to worry about.
Kitty's head bobbled in something like a nod. "Oh, yes. Desperately. You've noticed it." She paused to look about her. "Where did he get to? I know he was in the cab with us. And what happened to Ellie?"
Henry's blissful mood, already waning, evaporated in an instant. He had last seen Howard carrying Ellie toward the bedrooms. Henry and Kitty had been distracting themselves in the kitchen for a while, but Howard had yet to reappear and make his goodbyes. He would never suspect Howard of anything improper with a girl -- he never had before now, but blind trust could only carry a man so far and this was his sister.
"I'll be right back," he said. "I just want to check on Ellie. Don't go anywhere." He squeezed her hand before dashing out of the room and down the hall.
Ellie's bedroom door stood ajar. The room was dark and quiet. He poked his head in and looked at the sleeping figure on the bed. From the dim light coming in from the hall, the sleeper was obviously Howard Ashley, and only Howard Ashley.
Henry looked about the room, searching for Ellie. The closet was full of her clothes, the vanity table was littered with her makeup, but there was no living sign of her.
He tried shaking Howard awake, but that proved futile. Henry tried to think rationally. If his sister was not in her bed, where else could she be?
The most obvious possibility was in Kitty's room. And when Henry crossed the narrow expanse of the hall and threw open the door, he had the satisfaction of seeing Ellie asleep, fully clothed, atop Kitty's bed. She muttered in her dreams and turned away from the light, but did not awaken.
Henry stood at the threshold and stared at her for a moment. He could feel relief flooding through him as his heart rate slowed. Had he just suspected his friend of... of taking advantage of his sister?
How different was that from what Henry was actually doing? He had enough distance right now to begin thinking more clearly. He had admitted to himself and to Kitty that he was in love with her. Perhaps they still had no binding promises, but they had something concrete now, something worth defying his father for. But when morning came, would she appreciate that, or would she be too offended by the liberties he had taken in her inebriated state? Shaking his head in self-admonishment, he resolved to kiss Kitty no more tonight.
The light was on but the kitchen was empty when he returned. "Kitty?" he called out. He tried to keep his voice down then thought better of it. Who was he going to disturb? The house was full of people sleeping so soundly he couldn't wake them if he tried. "Kitty?"
He found her at last, flopped across his own bed, her breathing slow and rhythmic. He froze on the threshold. Whatever was supposed to happen next, it could wait until morning. They could talk in the daylight with clear heads about what they meant to each other, his father's ridiculous assumptions, and how they were going to get out of this unscathed. Perhaps, if he were lucky and clean-shaven, there would be plenty more kissing. For now, it remained a line he wouldn't cross.The End