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Test 1 / 25

The Middle Of Things

Chapter I – Faced With Reality

On that particular November evening, Viner, a young gentleman of means and leisure, who lived in a comfortable old house in Markendale Square, Bayswater, in company with his maiden aunt Miss Bethia Penkridge, had spent his after-dinner hours in a fashion which had become a habit. Miss Penkridge, a model housekeeper and an essentially worthy woman, whose whole day was given to supervising somebody or something, had an insatiable appetite for fiction, and loved nothing so much as that her nephew should read a novel to her after the two glasses of port which she allowed herself every night had been thoughtfully consumed and he and she had adjourned from the dining-room to the hearthrug in the library. Her tastes, however, in Viner’s opinion were somewhat, if not decidedly, limited.

Brought up in her youth on Miss Braddon, Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Henry Wood, Miss Penkridge had become a confirmed slave to the sensational. She had no taste for the psychological, and nothing but scorn for the erotic. What she loved was a story which began with crime and ended with a detection – a story which kept you wondering who did it, how it was done, and when the doing was going to be laid bare to the light of day. Nothing pleased her better than to go to bed with a brain titivated with the mysteries of the last three chapters; nothing gave her such infinite delight as to find, when the final pages were turned, that all her own theories were wrong, and that the real criminal was somebody quite other than the person she had fancied. For a novelist who was so little master of his trade as to let you see when and how things were going, Miss Penkridge had little but good-natured pity; for one who led you by all sorts of devious tracks to a startling and surprising sensation she cherished a whole-souled love; but for the creator of a plot who could keep his secret burning to his last few sentences she felt the deepest thing that she could give to any human being-respect. Such a master was entered permanently on her mental library list.

At precisely ten o’clock that evening Viner read the last page of a novel which had proved to be exactly suited to his aunt’s tastes. A dead silence fell on the room, broken only by the crackling of the logs in the grate. Miss Penkridge dropped her knitting on her silk-gowned knees and stared at the leaping flames; her nephew, with an odd glance at her, rose from his easy-chair, picked up a pipe and began to fill it from a tobacco-jar on the mantelpiece. The clock had ticked several times before Miss Penkridge spoke.

“Well!” she said, with the accompanying sigh which denotes complete content. “So he did it! Now, I should never have thought it! The last person of the whole lot! Clever, very clever! Richard, you’ll get all the books that that man has written!”

Viner lighted his pipe, thrust his hands in the pockets of his trousers and leaned back against the mantelpiece.

“My dear aunt!” he said half-teasingly, half-seriously. “You’re worse than a drug-taker. Whatever makes a highly-respectable, shrewd old lady like you cherish such an insensate fancy for this sort of stuff?”

“Stuff?” demanded Miss Penkridge, who had resumed her knitting. “Pooh! It’s not stuff, it’s life! Real life, in the form of fiction!”

Viner shook his head, pityingly. He never read fiction for his own amusement; his tastes in reading lay elsewhere, in solid directions. Moreover, in those directions he was a good deal of a student, and he knew more of his own library than of the world outside it. So he shook his head again.

“Life!” he said. “You don’t mean to say that you think those things” he pointed a half-scornful finger to a pile of novels which had come in from Mudie’s that day, “really represent life?”

“What else?” demanded Miss Penkridge.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Viner vaguely. “Fancy, I suppose, and imagination, and all that sort of thing, invention, you know, and so on. But, life! Do you really think such things happen in real life, as those we’ve been reading about?”

“I don’t think anything about it,” retorted Miss Penkridge sturdily. “I’m sure of it. I never had a novel yet, nor heard one read to me, that was half as strong as it might have been!”

“Queer thing, one never hears or sees of these things, then!” exclaimed Viner. “I never have! and I’ve been on this planet thirty years.”

“That sort of thing hasn’t come your way, Richard,” remarked Miss Penkridge sententiously. “And you don’t read the popular Sunday newspapers. I do! They’re full of crime of all sorts. So’s the world. And as to mysteries, well, I’ve known of two or three in my time that were much more extraordinary than any I’ve ever read of in novels. I should think so!”

What problem did Viner have with reading to his aunt?
What most drove Miss Penkridge's taste in novels?
What is closest in meaning to 'burning' in paragraph 2?
What was Miss Penkridge's feelings towards the author of the most recent book that Viner read for her?
What is Viner's fundamental objection to the fiction that his aunt likes?
What sense does the narrator want to give with the comments about Viner's library and his reading?
Test 2 / 25

The Ghost

We were speaking of sequestration, alluding to a recent lawsuit. It was at the close of a friendly evening in a very old mansion in the Rue de Grenelle, and each of the guests had a story to tell, which he assured us was true. Then the old Marquis de la Tour-Samuel, eighty-two years of age, rose and came forward to lean on the mantelpiece. He told the following story in his slightly quavering voice:

I, also, have witnessed a strange thing, so strange that it has been the nightmare of my life. It happened fifty-six years ago, and yet there is not a month when I do not see it again in my dreams. From that day I have borne a mark, a stamp of fear, do you understand?

Yes, for ten minutes I was a prey to terror, in such a way that ever since a constant dread has remained in my soul. Unexpected sounds chill me to the heart; objects which I can ill distinguish in the evening shadows make me long to flee. I am afraid at night.

No! I would not have owned up to such a thing before reaching my present age. But now I may tell everything. One may fear imaginary dangers at eighty-two years old. But before actual danger I have never turned back, mesdames.

That affair so upset my mind, filled me with such a deep, mysterious unrest that I never could tell it. I kept it in that inmost part, that corner where we conceal our sad, our shameful secrets, all the weaknesses of our life which cannot be confessed.

I will tell you that strange happening just as it took place, with no attempt to explain it. Unless I went mad for one short hour it must be explainable, though. Yet I was not mad, and I will prove it to you. Imagine what you will. Here are the simple facts:

It was in 1827, in July. I was quartered with my regiment in Rouen. One day, as I was strolling on the quay, I came across a man I believed I recognized, though I could not place him with certainty. I instinctively went more slowly, ready to pause. The stranger saw my impulse, looked at me, and fell into my arms.

It was a friend of my younger days, of whom I had been very fond. He seemed to have become half a century older in the five years since I had seen him. His hair was white, and he stooped in his walk, as if he were exhausted. He understood my amazement and told me the story of his life. A terrible event had broken him down. He had fallen madly in love with a young girl and married her in a kind of dreamlike ecstasy. After a year of unalloyed bliss and unexhausted passion, she had died suddenly of heart disease, no doubt killed by love itself.

He had left the country on the very day of her funeral, and had come to live in his hotel at Rouen. He remained there, solitary and desperate, grief slowly mining him, so wretched that he constantly thought of suicide. ‘As I thus came across you again,’ he said, ‘I shall ask a great favor of you. I want you to go to my château and get some papers I urgently need. They are in the writing-desk of my room, of our room. I cannot send a servant or a lawyer, as the errand must be kept private. I want absolute silence.

‘I shall give you the key of the room, which I locked carefully myself before leaving, and the key to the writing-desk. I shall also give you a note for the gardener, who will let you in. ‘Come to breakfast with me tomorrow, and we’ll talk the matter over.’

I promised to render him that slight service. It would mean but a pleasant excursion for me, his home not being more than twenty-five miles from Rouen. I could go there in an hour on horseback. At ten o’clock the next day I was with him. We breakfasted alone together, yet he did not utter more than twenty words. He asked me to excuse him. The thought that I was going to visit the room where his happiness lay shattered, upset him, he said. Indeed, he seemed perturbed, worried, as if some mysterious struggle were taking place in his soul.

At last he explained exactly what I was to do. It was very simple. I was to take two packages of letters and some papers, locked in the first drawer on the right of the desk of which I had the key. He added: ‘I need not ask you not to glance at them.’

I was almost hurt by his words, and told him so, rather sharply. He stammered: ‘Forgive me. I suffer so much!’ And tears came to his eyes.

I left about one o’clock to accomplish my errand. The day was radiant, and I rushed through the meadows, listening to the song of the larks, and the rhythmical beat of my sword on my riding-boots. Then I entered the forest, and I set my horse to walking. Branches of the trees softly caressed my face, and now and then I would catch a leaf between my teeth and bite it with avidity, full of the joy of life, such as fills you without reason, with a tumultuous happiness almost indefinable, a kind of magical strength.

As I neared the house I took out the letter for the gardener, and noted with surprise that it was sealed. I was so amazed and so annoyed that I almost turned back without fulfilling my mission. Then I thought that I should thus display over-sensitiveness and bad taste. My friend might have sealed it unconsciously, worried as he was.

The manor looked as though it had been deserted the last twenty years. The gate, wide-open and rotten, held, one wondered how. Grass filled the paths; you could not tell the flower-beds from the lawn.

How does the Marquis look back on what happened to him?
Why hasn't the Marquis ever told the story before now?
Why did the narrator's friend look so much older?
Why did the narrator's friend ask him to go to his chateau?
Why was the narrator offended during his breakfast with his friend?
Which word is closest in meaning to 'avidity' in the third to last paragraph?