Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 16

They had of course immediately spoken of Catherine. “Did she send me a message, or — or anything?” Morris asked. He appeared to think that she might have sent him a trinket or a lock of her hair.

Mrs. Penniman was slightly embarrassed, for she had not told her niece of her intended expedition. “Not exactly a message,” she said; “I didn’t ask her for one, because I was afraid to — to excite her.”

“I am afraid she is not very excitable!” And Morris gave a smile of some bitterness.

“She is better than that. She is steadfast — she is true!”

“Do you think she will hold fast, then?”

“To the death!”

“Oh, I hope it won’t come to that,” said Morris.

“We must be prepared for the worst, and that is what I wish to speak to you about.”

“What do you call the worst?”

“Well,” said Mrs. Penniman, “my brother’s hard, intellectual nature.”

“Oh, the devil!”

“He is impervious to pity,” Mrs. Penniman added, by way of explanation.

“Do you mean that he won’t come round?”

“He will never be vanquished by argument. I have studied him. He will be vanquished only by the accomplished fact.”

“The accomplished fact?”

“He will come round afterwards,” said Mrs. Penniman, with extreme significance. “He cares for nothing but facts; he must be met by facts!”

“Well,” rejoined Morris, “it is a fact that I wish to marry his daughter. I met him with that the other day, but he was not at all vanquished.”

Mrs. Penniman was silent a little, and her smile beneath the shadow of her capacious bonnet, on the edge of which her black veil was arranged curtain-wise, fixed itself upon Morris’s face with a still more tender brilliancy. “Marry Catherine first and meet him afterwards!” she exclaimed.

“Do you recommend that?” asked the young man, frowning heavily.

She was a little frightened, but she went on with considerable boldness. “That is the way I see it: a private marriage — a private marriage.” She repeated the phrase because she liked it.

“Do you mean that I should carry Catherine off? What do they call it — elope with her?”

“It is not a crime when you are driven to it,” said Mrs. Penniman. “My husband, as I have told you, was a distinguished clergyman; one of the most eloquent men of his day. He once married a young couple that had fled from the house of the young lady’s father. He was so interested in their story. He had no hesitation, and everything came out beautifully. The father was afterwards reconciled, and thought everything of the young man. Mr. Penniman married them in the evening, about seven o’clock. The church was so dark, you could scarcely see; and Mr. Penniman was intensely agitated; he was so sympathetic. I don’t believe he could have done it again.”

“Unfortunately Catherine and I have not Mr. Penniman to marry us,” said Morris.

“No, but you have me!” rejoined Mrs. Penniman expressively. “I can’t perform the ceremony, but I can help you. I can watch.”

“The woman’s an idiot,” thought Morris; but he was obliged to say something different. It was not, however, materially more civil. “Was it in order to tell me this that you requested I would meet you here?”

Mrs. Penniman had been conscious of a certain vagueness in her errand, and of not being able to offer him any very tangible reward for his long walk. “I thought perhaps you would like to see one who is so near to Catherine,” she observed, with considerable majesty. “And also,” she added, “that you would value an opportunity of sending her something.”

Morris extended his empty hands with a melancholy smile. “I am greatly obliged to you, but I have nothing to send.”

“Haven’t you a WORD?” asked his companion, with her suggestive smile coming back.

Morris frowned again. “Tell her to hold fast,” he said rather curtly.

“That is a good word — a noble word. It will make her happy for many days. She is very touching, very brave,” Mrs. Penniman went on, arranging her mantle and preparing to depart. While she was so engaged she had an inspiration. She found the phrase that she could boldly offer as a vindication of the step she had taken. “If you marry Catherine at all risks” she said, “you will give my brother a proof of your being what he pretends to doubt.”

“What he pretends to doubt?”

“Don’t you know what that is?” Mrs. Penniman asked almost playfully.

“It does not concern me to know,” said Morris grandly.

“Of course it makes you angry.”

“I despise it,” Morris declared.

“Ah, you know what it is, then?” said Mrs. Penniman, shaking her finger at him. “He pretends that you like — you like the money.”

Morris hesitated a moment; and then, as if he spoke advisedly —“I DO like the money!”

“Ah, but not — but not as he means it. You don’t like it more than Catherine?”

He leaned his elbows on the table and buried his head in his hands. “You torture me!” he murmured. And, indeed, this was almost the effect of the poor lady’s too importunate interest in his situation.

But she insisted on making her point. “If you marry her in spite of him, he will take for granted that you expect nothing of him, and are prepared to do without it. And so he will see that you are disinterested.”

Morris raised his head a little, following this argument, “And what shall I gain by that?”

“Why, that he will see that he has been wrong in thinking that you wished to get his money.”

“And seeing that I wish he would go to the deuce with it, he will leave it to a hospital. Is that what you mean?” asked Morris.

“No, I don’t mean that; though that would be very grand!” Mrs. Penniman quickly added. “I mean that having done you such an injustice, he will think it his duty, at the end, to make some amends.”

Morris shook his head, though it must be confessed he was a little struck with this idea. “Do you think he is so sentimental?”

“He is not sentimental,” said Mrs. Penniman; “but, to be perfectly fair to him, I think he has, in his own narrow way, a certain sense of duty.”

There passed through Morris Townsend’s mind a rapid wonder as to what he might, even under a remote contingency, be indebted to from the action of this principle in Dr. Sloper’s breast, and the inquiry exhausted itself in his sense of the ludicrous. “Your brother has no duties to me,” he said presently, “and I none to him.”

“Ah, but he has duties to Catherine.”

“Yes, but you see that on that principle Catherine has duties to him as well.”

Mrs. Penniman got up, with a melancholy sigh, as if she thought him very unimaginative. “She has always performed them faithfully; and now, do you think she has no duties to YOU?” Mrs. Penniman always, even in conversation, italicised her personal pronouns.

“It would sound harsh to say so! I am so grateful for her love,” Morris added.

“I will tell her you said that! And now, remember that if you need me, I am there.” And Mrs. Penniman, who could think of nothing more to say, nodded vaguely in the direction of Washington Square.

Morris looked some moments at the sanded floor of the shop; he seemed to be disposed to linger a moment. At last, looking up with a certain abruptness, “It is your belief that if she marries me he will cut her off?” he asked.

Mrs. Penniman stared a little, and smiled. “Why, I have explained to you what I think would happen — that in the end it would be the best thing to do.”

“You mean that, whatever she does, in the long run she will get the money?”

“It doesn’t depend upon her, but upon you. Venture to appear as disinterested as you are!” said Mrs. Penniman ingeniously. Morris dropped his eyes on the sanded floor again, pondering this; and she pursued. “Mr. Penniman and I had nothing, and we were very happy. Catherine, moreover, has her mother’s fortune, which, at the time my sister-in-law married, was considered a very handsome one.”

“Oh, don’t speak of that!” said Morris; and, indeed, it was quite superfluous, for he had contemplated the fact in all its lights.

“Austin married a wife with money — why shouldn’t you?”

“Ah! but your brother was a doctor,” Morris objected.

“Well, all young men can’t be doctors!”

“I should think it an extremely loathsome profession,” said Morris, with an air of intellectual independence. Then in a moment, he went on rather inconsequently, “Do you suppose there is a will already made in Catherine’s favour?”

“I suppose so — even doctors must die; and perhaps a little in mine,” Mrs. Penniman frankly added.

“And you believe he would certainly change it — as regards Catherine?”

“Yes; and then change it back again.”

“Ah, but one can’t depend on that!” said Morris.

“Do you want to DEPEND on it?” Mrs. Penniman asked.

Morris blushed a little. “Well, I am certainly afraid of being the cause of an injury to Catherine.”

“Ah! you must not be afraid. Be afraid of nothing, and everything will go well!”

And then Mrs. Penniman paid for her cup of tea, and Morris paid for his oyster stew, and they went out together into the dimly-lighted wilderness of the Seventh Avenue. The dusk had closed in completely and the street lamps were separated by wide intervals of a pavement in which cavities and fissures played a disproportionate part. An omnibus, emblazoned with strange pictures, went tumbling over the dislocated cobble-stones.

“How will you go home?” Morris asked, following this vehicle with an interested eye. Mrs. Penniman had taken his arm.

She hesitated a moment. “I think this manner would be pleasant,” she said; and she continued to let him feel the value of his support.

So he walked with her through the devious ways of the west side of the town, and through the bustle of gathering nightfall in populous streets, to the quiet precinct of Washington Square. They lingered a moment at the foot of Dr. Sloper’s white marble steps, above which a spotless white door, adorned with a glittering silver plate, seemed to figure, for Morris, the closed portal of happiness; and then Mrs. Penniman’s companion rested a melancholy eye upon a lighted window in the upper part of the house.

“That is my room — my dear little room!” Mrs. Penniman remarked.

Morris started. “Then I needn’t come walking round the Square to gaze at it.”

“That’s as you please. But Catherine’s is behind; two noble windows on the second floor. I think you can see them from the other street.”

“I don’t want to see them, ma’am!” And Morris turned his back to the house.

“I will tell her you have been HERE, at any rate,” said Mrs. Penniman, pointing to the spot where they stood; “and I will give her your message — that she is to hold fast!”

“Oh, yes! of course. You know I write her all that.”

“It seems to say more when it is spoken! And remember, if you need me, that I am THERE”; and Mrs. Penniman glanced at the third floor.

On this they separated, and Morris, left to himself, stood looking at the house a moment; after which he turned away, and took a gloomy walk round the Square, on the opposite side, close to the wooden fence. Then he came back, and paused for a minute in front of Dr. Sloper’s dwelling. His eyes travelled over it; they even rested on the ruddy windows of Mrs. Penniman’s apartment. He thought it a devilish comfortable house.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2w/chapter16.html

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