Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 11

Catherine listened for her father when he came in that evening, and she heard him go to his study. She sat quiet, though her heart was beating fast, for nearly half an hour; then she went and knocked at his door — a ceremony without which she never crossed the threshold of this apartment. On entering it now she found him in his chair beside the fire, entertaining himself with a cigar and the evening paper.

“I have something to say to you,” she began very gently; and she sat down in the first place that offered.

“I shall be very happy to hear it, my dear,” said her father. He waited — waited, looking at her, while she stared, in a long silence, at the fire. He was curious and impatient, for he was sure she was going to speak of Morris Townsend; but he let her take her own time, for he was determined to be very mild.

“I am engaged to be married!” Catherine announced at last, still staring at the fire.

The Doctor was startled; the accomplished fact was more than he had expected. But he betrayed no surprise. “You do right to tell me,” he simply said. “And who is the happy mortal whom you have honoured with your choice?”

“Mr. Morris Townsend.” And as she pronounced her lover’s name, Catherine looked at him. What she saw was her father’s still grey eye and his clear-cut, definite smile. She contemplated these objects for a moment, and then she looked back at the fire; it was much warmer.

“When was this arrangement made?” the Doctor asked.

“This afternoon — two hours ago.”

“Was Mr. Townsend here?”

“Yes, father; in the front parlour.” She was very glad that she was not obliged to tell him that the ceremony of their betrothal had taken place out there under the bare ailantus-trees.

“Is it serious?” said the Doctor.

“Very serious, father.”

Her father was silent a moment. “Mr. Townsend ought to have told me.”

“He means to tell you to-morrow.”

“After I know all about it from you? He ought to have told me before. Does he think I didn’t care — because I left you so much liberty?”

“Oh no,” said Catherine; “he knew you would care. And we have been so much obliged to you for — for the liberty.”

The Doctor gave a short laugh. “You might have made a better use of it, Catherine.”

“Please don’t say that, father,” the girl urged softly, fixing her dull and gentle eyes upon him.

He puffed his cigar awhile, meditatively. “You have gone very fast,” he said at last.

“Yes,” Catherine answered simply; “I think we have.”

Her father glanced at her an instant, removing his eyes from the fire. “I don’t wonder Mr. Townsend likes you. You are so simple and so good.”

“I don’t know why it is — but he DOES like me. I am sure of that.”

“And are you very fond of Mr. Townsend?”

“I like him very much, of course — or I shouldn’t consent to marry him.”

“But you have known him a very short time, my dear.”

“Oh,” said Catherine, with some eagerness, “it doesn’t take long to like a person — when once you begin.”

“You must have begun very quickly. Was it the first time you saw him — that night at your aunt’s party?”

“I don’t know, father,” the girl answered. “I can’t tell you about that.”

“Of course; that’s your own affair. You will have observed that I have acted on that principle. I have not interfered, I have left you your liberty, I have remembered that you are no longer a little girl — that you have arrived at years of discretion.”

“I feel very old — and very wise,” said Catherine, smiling faintly.

“I am afraid that before long you will feel older and wiser yet. I don’t like your engagement.”

“Ah!” Catherine exclaimed softly, getting up from her chair.

“No, my dear. I am sorry to give you pain; but I don’t like it. You should have consulted me before you settled it. I have been too easy with you, and I feel as if you had taken advantage of my indulgence. Most decidedly, you should have spoken to me first.”

Catherine hesitated a moment, and then —“It was because I was afraid you wouldn’t like it!” she confessed.

“Ah, there it is! You had a bad conscience.”

“No, I have not a bad conscience, father!” the girl cried out, with considerable energy. “Please don’t accuse me of anything so dreadful.” These words, in fact, represented to her imagination something very terrible indeed, something base and cruel, which she associated with malefactors and prisoners. “It was because I was afraid — afraid —” she went on.

“If you were afraid, it was because you had been foolish!”

“I was afraid you didn’t like Mr. Townsend.”

“You were quite right. I don’t like him.”

“Dear father, you don’t know him,” said Catherine, in a voice so timidly argumentative that it might have touched him.

“Very true; I don’t know him intimately. But I know him enough. I have my impression of him. You don’t know him either.”

She stood before the fire, with her hands lightly clasped in front of her; and her father, leaning back in his chair and looking up at her, made this remark with a placidity that might have been irritating.

I doubt, however, whether Catherine was irritated, though she broke into a vehement protest. “I don’t know him?” she cried. “Why, I know him — better than I have ever known any one!”

“You know a part of him — what he has chosen to show you. But you don’t know the rest.”

“The rest? What is the rest?”

“Whatever it may be. There is sure to be plenty of it.”

“I know what you mean,” said Catherine, remembering how Morris had forewarned her. “You mean that he is mercenary.”

Her father looked up at her still, with his cold, quiet reasonable eye. “If I meant it, my dear, I should say it! But there is an error I wish particularly to avoid — that of rendering Mr. Townsend more interesting to you by saying hard things about him.”

“I won’t think them hard if they are true,” said Catherine.

“If you don’t, you will be a remarkably sensible young woman!”

“They will be your reasons, at any rate, and you will want me to hear your reasons.”

The Doctor smiled a little. “Very true. You have a perfect right to ask for them.” And he puffed his cigar a few moments. “Very well, then, without accusing Mr. Townsend of being in love only with your fortune — and with the fortune that you justly expect — I will say that there is every reason to suppose that these good things have entered into his calculation more largely than a tender solicitude for your happiness strictly requires. There is, of course, nothing impossible in an intelligent young man entertaining a disinterested affection for you. You are an honest, amiable girl, and an intelligent young man might easily find it out. But the principal thing that we know about this young man — who is, indeed, very intelligent — leads us to suppose that, however much he may value your personal merits, he values your money more. The principal thing we know about him is that he has led a life of dissipation, and has spent a fortune of his own in doing so. That is enough for me, my dear. I wish you to marry a young man with other antecedents — a young man who could give positive guarantees. If Morris Townsend has spent his own fortune in amusing himself, there is every reason to believe that he would spend yours.”

The Doctor delivered himself of these remarks slowly, deliberately, with occasional pauses and prolongations of accent, which made no great allowance for poor Catherine’s suspense as to his conclusion. She sat down at last, with her head bent and her eyes still fixed upon him; and strangely enough — I hardly know how to tell it — even while she felt that what he said went so terribly against her, she admired his neatness and nobleness of expression. There was something hopeless and oppressive in having to argue with her father; but she too, on her side, must try to be clear. He was so quiet; he was not at all angry; and she too must be quiet. But her very effort to be quiet made her tremble.

“That is not the principal thing we know about him,” she said; and there was a touch of her tremor in her voice. “There are other things — many other things. He has very high abilities — he wants so much to do something. He is kind, and generous, and true,” said poor Catherine, who had not suspected hitherto the resources of her eloquence. “And his fortune — his fortune that he spent — was very small!”

“All the more reason he shouldn’t have spent it,” cried the Doctor, getting up, with a laugh. Then as Catherine, who had also risen to her feet again, stood there in her rather angular earnestness, wishing so much and expressing so little, he drew her towards him and kissed her. “You won’t think me cruel?” he said, holding her a moment.

This question was not reassuring; it seemed to Catherine, on the contrary, to suggest possibilities which made her feel sick. But she answered coherently enough —“No, dear father; because if you knew how I feel — and you must know, you know everything — you would be so kind, so gentle.”

“Yes, I think I know how you feel,” the Doctor said. “I will be very kind — be sure of that. And I will see Mr. Townsend to-morrow. Meanwhile, and for the present, be so good as to mention to no one that you are engaged.”

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