Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 12

On the morrow, in the afternoon, he stayed at home, awaiting Mr. Townsend’s call — a proceeding by which it appeared to him (justly perhaps, for he was a very busy man) that he paid Catherine’s suitor great honour, and gave both these young people so much the less to complain of. Morris presented himself with a countenance sufficiently serene — he appeared to have forgotten the “insult” for which he had solicited Catherine’s sympathy two evenings before, and Dr. Sloper lost no time in letting him know that he had been prepared for his visit.

“Catherine told me yesterday what has been going on between you,” he said. “You must allow me to say that it would have been becoming of you to give me notice of your intentions before they had gone so far.”

“I should have done so,” Morris answered, “if you had not had so much the appearance of leaving your daughter at liberty. She seems to me quite her own mistress.”

“Literally, she is. But she has not emancipated herself morally quite so far, I trust, as to choose a husband without consulting me. I have left her at liberty, but I have not been in the least indifferent. The truth is that your little affair has come to a head with a rapidity that surprises me. It was only the other day that Catherine made your acquaintance.”

“It was not long ago, certainly,” said Morris, with great gravity. “I admit that we have not been slow to — to arrive at an understanding. But that was very natural, from the moment we were sure of ourselves — and of each other. My interest in Miss Sloper began the first time I saw her.”

“Did it not by chance precede your first meeting?” the Doctor asked.

Morris looked at him an instant. “I certainly had already heard that she was a charming girl.”

“A charming girl — that’s what you think her?”

“Assuredly. Otherwise I should not be sitting here.”

The Doctor meditated a moment. “My dear young man,” he said at last, “you must be very susceptible. As Catherine’s father, I have, I trust, a just and tender appreciation of her many good qualities; but I don’t mind telling you that I have never thought of her as a charming girl, and never expected any one else to do so.”

Morris Townsend received this statement with a smile that was not wholly devoid of deference. “I don’t know what I might think of her if I were her father. I can’t put myself in that place. I speak from my own point of view.”

“You speak very well,” said the Doctor; “but that is not all that is necessary. I told Catherine yesterday that I disapproved of her engagement.”

“She let me know as much, and I was very sorry to hear it. I am greatly disappointed.” And Morris sat in silence awhile, looking at the floor.

“Did you really expect I would say I was delighted, and throw my daughter into your arms?”

“Oh no; I had an idea you didn’t like me.”

“What gave you the idea?”

“The fact that I am poor.”

“That has a harsh sound,” said the Doctor, “but it is about the truth — speaking of you strictly as a son-in-law. Your absence of means, of a profession, of visible resources or prospects, places you in a category from which it would be imprudent for me to select a husband for my daughter, who is a weak young woman with a large fortune. In any other capacity I am perfectly prepared to like you. As a son-in-law, I abominate you!”

Morris Townsend listened respectfully. “I don’t think Miss Sloper is a weak woman,” he presently said.

“Of course you must defend her — it’s the least you can do. But I have known my child twenty years, and you have known her six weeks. Even if she were not weak, however, you would still be a penniless man.”

“Ah, yes; that is MY weakness! And therefore, you mean, I am mercenary — I only want your daughter’s money.”

“I don’t say that. I am not obliged to say it; and to say it, save under stress of compulsion, would be very bad taste. I say simply that you belong to the wrong category.”

“But your daughter doesn’t marry a category,” Townsend urged, with his handsome smile. “She marries an individual — an individual whom she is so good as to say she loves.”

“An individual who offers so little in return!”

“Is it possible to offer more than the most tender affection and a lifelong devotion?” the young man demanded.

“It depends how we take it. It is possible to offer a few other things besides; and not only is it possible, but it’s usual. A lifelong devotion is measured after the fact; and meanwhile it is customary in these cases to give a few material securities. What are yours? A very handsome face and figure, and a very good manner. They are excellent as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough.”

“There is one thing you should add to them,” said Morris; “the word of a gentleman!”

“The word of a gentleman that you will always love Catherine? You must be a very fine gentleman to be sure of that.”

“The word of a gentleman that I am not mercenary; that my affection for Miss Sloper is as pure and disinterested a sentiment as was ever lodged in a human breast! I care no more for her fortune than for the ashes in that grate.”

“I take note — I take note,” said the Doctor. “But having done so, I turn to our category again. Even with that solemn vow on your lips, you take your place in it. There is nothing against you but an accident, if you will; but with my thirty years’ medical practice, I have seen that accidents may have far-reaching consequences.”

Morris smoothed his hat — it was already remarkably glossy — and continued to display a self-control which, as the Doctor was obliged to admit, was extremely creditable to him. But his disappointment was evidently keen.

“Is there nothing I can do to make you believe in me?”

“If there were I should be sorry to suggest it, for — don’t you see? — I don’t want to believe in you!” said the Doctor, smiling.

“I would go and dig in the fields.”

“That would be foolish.”

“I will take the first work that offers, to-morrow.”

“Do so by all means — but for your own sake, not for mine.”

“I see; you think I am an idler!” Morris exclaimed, a little too much in the tone of a man who has made a discovery. But he saw his error immediately, and blushed.

“It doesn’t matter what I think, when once I have told you I don’t think of you as a son-in-law.”

But Morris persisted. “You think I would squander her money.”

The Doctor smiled. “It doesn’t matter, as I say; but I plead guilty to that.”

“That’s because I spent my own, I suppose,” said Morris. “I frankly confess that. I have been wild. I have been foolish. I will tell you every crazy thing I ever did, if you like. There were some great follies among the number — I have never concealed that. But I have sown my wild oats. Isn’t there some proverb about a reformed rake? I was not a rake, but I assure you I have reformed. It is better to have amused oneself for a while and have done with it. Your daughter would never care for a milksop; and I will take the liberty of saying that you would like one quite as little. Besides, between my money and hers there is a great difference. I spent my own; it was because it was my own that I spent it. And I made no debts; when it was gone I stopped. I don’t owe a penny in the world.”

“Allow me to inquire what you are living on now — though I admit,” the Doctor added, “that the question, on my part, is inconsistent.”

“I am living on the remnants of my property,” said Morris Townsend.

“Thank you!” the Doctor gravely replied.

Yes, certainly, Morris’s self-control was laudable. “Even admitting I attach an undue importance to Miss Sloper’s fortune,” he went on, “would not that be in itself an assurance that I should take much care of it?”

“That you should take too much care would be quite as bad as that you should take too little. Catherine might suffer as much by your economy as by your extravagance.”

“I think you are very unjust!” The young man made this declaration decently, civilly, without violence.

“It is your privilege to think so, and I surrender my reputation to you! I certainly don’t flatter myself I gratify you.”

“Don’t you care a little to gratify your daughter? Do you enjoy the idea of making her miserable?”

“I am perfectly resigned to her thinking me a tyrant for a twelvemonth.”

“For a twelvemonth!” exclaimed Morris, with a laugh.

“For a lifetime, then! She may as well be miserable in that way as in the other.”

Here at last Morris lost his temper. “Ah, you are not polite, sir!” he cried.

“You push me to it — you argue too much.”

“I have a great deal at stake.”

“Well, whatever it is,” said the Doctor, “you have lost it!”

“Are you sure of that?” asked Morris; “are you sure your daughter will give me up?”

“I mean, of course, you have lost it as far as I am concerned. As for Catherine’s giving you up — no, I am not sure of it. But as I shall strongly recommend it, as I have a great fund of respect and affection in my daughter’s mind to draw upon, and as she has the sentiment of duty developed in a very high degree, I think it extremely possible.”

Morris Townsend began to smooth his hat again. “I too have a fund of affection to draw upon!” he observed at last.

The Doctor at this point showed his own first symptoms of irritation. “Do you mean to defy me?”

“Call it what you please, sir! I mean not to give your daughter up.”

The Doctor shook his head. “I haven’t the least fear of your pining away your life. You are made to enjoy it.”

Morris gave a laugh. “Your opposition to my marriage is all the more cruel, then! Do you intend to forbid your daughter to see me again?”

“She is past the age at which people are forbidden, and I am not a father in an old-fashioned novel. But I shall strongly urge her to break with you.”

“I don’t think she will,” said Morris Townsend.

“Perhaps not. But I shall have done what I could.”

“She has gone too far,” Morris went on.

“To retreat? Then let her stop where she is.”

“Too far to stop, I mean.”

The Doctor looked at him a moment; Morris had his hand on the door. “There is a great deal of impertinence in your saying it.”

“I will say no more, sir!” Morris answered; and, making his bow, he left the room.

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