Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 10

Catherine received the young man the next day on the ground she had chosen — amid the chaste upholstery of a New York drawing-room furnished in the fashion of fifty years ago. Morris had swallowed his pride and made the effort necessary to cross the threshold of her too derisive parent — an act of magnanimity which could not fail to render him doubly interesting.

“We must settle something — we must take a line,” he declared, passing his hand through his hair and giving a glance at the long narrow mirror which adorned the space between the two windows, and which had at its base a little gilded bracket covered by a thin slab of white marble, supporting in its turn a backgammon board folded together in the shape of two volumes, two shining folios inscribed in letters of greenish gilt, History of England. If Morris had been pleased to describe the master of the house as a heartless scoffer, it is because he thought him too much on his guard, and this was the easiest way to express his own dissatisfaction — a dissatisfaction which he had made a point of concealing from the Doctor. It will probably seem to the reader, however, that the Doctor’s vigilance was by no means excessive, and that these two young people had an open field. Their intimacy was now considerable, and it may appear that for a shrinking and retiring person our heroine had been liberal of her favours. The young man, within a few days, had made her listen to things for which she had not supposed that she was prepared; having a lively foreboding of difficulties, he proceeded to gain as much ground as possible in the present. He remembered that fortune favours the brave, and even if he had forgotten it, Mrs. Penniman would have remembered it for him. Mrs. Penniman delighted of all things in a drama, and she flattered herself that a drama would now be enacted. Combining as she did the zeal of the prompter with the impatience of the spectator, she had long since done her utmost to pull up the curtain. She too expected to figure in the performance — to be the confidante, the Chorus, to speak the epilogue. It may even be said that there were times when she lost sight altogether of the modest heroine of the play, in the contemplation of certain great passages which would naturally occur between the hero and herself.

What Morris had told Catherine at last was simply that he loved her, or rather adored her. Virtually, he had made known as much already — his visits had been a series of eloquent intimations of it. But now he had affirmed it in lover’s vows, and, as a memorable sign of it, he had passed his arm round the girl’s waist and taken a kiss. This happy certitude had come sooner than Catherine expected, and she had regarded it, very naturally, as a priceless treasure. It may even be doubted whether she had ever definitely expected to possess it; she had not been waiting for it, and she had never said to herself that at a given moment it must come. As I have tried to explain, she was not eager and exacting; she took what was given her from day to day; and if the delightful custom of her lover’s visits, which yielded her a happiness in which confidence and timidity were strangely blended, had suddenly come to an end, she would not only not have spoken of herself as one of the forsaken, but she would not have thought of herself as one of the disappointed. After Morris had kissed her, the last time he was with her, as a ripe assurance of his devotion, she begged him to go away, to leave her alone, to let her think. Morris went away, taking another kiss first. But Catherine’s meditations had lacked a certain coherence. She felt his kisses on her lips and on her cheeks for a long time afterwards; the sensation was rather an obstacle than an aid to reflexion. She would have liked to see her situation all clearly before her, to make up her mind what she should do if, as she feared, her father should tell her that he disapproved of Morris Townsend. But all that she could see with any vividness was that it was terribly strange that anyone should disapprove of him; that there must in that case be some mistake, some mystery, which in a little while would be set at rest. She put off deciding and choosing; before the vision of a conflict with her father she dropped her eyes and sat motionless, holding her breath and waiting. It made her heart beat, it was intensely painful. When Morris kissed her and said these things — that also made her heart beat; but this was worse, and it frightened her. Nevertheless, to-day, when the young man spoke of settling something, taking a line, she felt that it was the truth, and she answered very simply and without hesitating.

“We must do our duty,” she said; “we must speak to my father. I will do it to-night; you must do it to-morrow”

“It is very good of you to do it first,” Morris answered. “The young man — the happy lover — generally does that. But just as you please!”

It pleased Catherine to think that she should be brave for his sake, and in her satisfaction she even gave a little smile. “Women have more tact,” she said “they ought to do it first. They are more conciliating; they can persuade better.”

“You will need all your powers of persuasion. But, after all,” Morris added, “you are irresistible.”

“Please don’t speak that way — and promise me this. To-morrow, when you talk with father, you will be very gentle and respectful.”

“As much so as possible,” Morris promised. “It won’t be much use, but I shall try. I certainly would rather have you easily than have to fight for you.”

“Don’t talk about fighting; we shall not fight.”

“Ah, we must be prepared,” Morris rejoined; “you especially, because for you it must come hardest. Do you know the first thing your father will say to you?”

“No, Morris; please tell me.”

“He will tell you I am mercenary.”

“Mercenary?”

“It’s a big word; but it means a low thing. It means that I am after your money.”

“Oh!” murmured Catherine softly.

The exclamation was so deprecating and touching that Morris indulged in another little demonstration of affection. “But he will be sure to say it,” he added.

“It will be easy to be prepared for that,” Catherine said. “I shall simply say that he is mistaken — that other men may be that way, but that you are not.”

“You must make a great point of that, for it will be his own great point.”

Catherine looked at her lover a minute, and then she said, “I shall persuade him. But I am glad we shall be rich,” she added.

Morris turned away, looking into the crown of his hat. “No, it’s a misfortune,” he said at last. “It is from that our difficulty will come.”

“Well, if it is the worst misfortune, we are not so unhappy. Many people would not think it so bad. I will persuade him, and after that we shall be very glad we have money.”

Morris Townsend listened to this robust logic in silence. “I will leave my defence to you; it’s a charge that a man has to stoop to defend himself from.”

Catherine on her side was silent for a while; she was looking at him while he looked, with a good deal of fixedness, out of the window. “Morris,” she said abruptly, “are you very sure you love me?”

He turned round, and in a moment he was bending over her. “My own dearest, can you doubt it?”

“I have only known it five days,” she said; “but now it seems to me as if I could never do without it.”

“You will never be called upon to try!” And he gave a little tender, reassuring laugh. Then, in a moment, he added, “There is something you must tell me, too.” She had closed her eyes after the last word she uttered, and kept them closed; and at this she nodded her head, without opening them. “You must tell me,” he went on, “that if your father is dead against me, if he absolutely forbids our marriage, you will still be faithful.”

Catherine opened her eyes, gazing at him, and she could give no better promise than what he read there.

“You will cleave to me?” said Morris. “You know you are your own mistress — you are of age.”

“Ah, Morris!” she murmured, for all answer. Or rather not for all; for she put her hand into his own. He kept it a while, and presently he kissed her again. This is all that need be recorded of their conversation; but Mrs. Penniman, if she had been present, would probably have admitted that it was as well it had not taken place beside the fountain in Washington Square.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38