Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 17

Mrs. Penniman told Catherine that evening — the two ladies were sitting in the back parlour — that she had had an interview with Morris Townsend; and on receiving this news the girl started with a sense of pain. She felt angry for the moment; it was almost the first time she had ever felt angry. It seemed to her that her aunt was meddlesome; and from this came a vague apprehension that she would spoil something.

“I don’t see why you should have seen him. I don’t think it was right,” Catherine said.

“I was so sorry for him — it seemed to me some one ought to see him.”

“No one but I,” said Catherine, who felt as if she were making the most presumptuous speech of her life, and yet at the same time had an instinct that she was right in doing so.

“But you wouldn’t, my dear,” Aunt Lavinia rejoined; “and I didn’t know what might have become of him.”

“I have not seen him, because my father has forbidden it,” Catherine said very simply.

There was a simplicity in this, indeed, which fairly vexed Mrs. Penniman. “If your father forbade you to go to sleep, I suppose you would keep awake!” she commented.

Catherine looked at her. “I don’t understand you. You seem to be very strange.”

“Well, my dear, you will understand me some day!” And Mrs. Penniman, who was reading the evening paper, which she perused daily from the first line to the last, resumed her occupation. She wrapped herself in silence; she was determined Catherine should ask her for an account of her interview with Morris. But Catherine was silent for so long, that she almost lost patience; and she was on the point of remarking to her that she was very heartless, when the girl at last spoke.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“He said he is ready to marry you any day, in spite of everything.”

Catherine made no answer to this, and Mrs. Penniman almost lost patience again; owing to which she at last volunteered the information that Morris looked very handsome, but terribly haggard.

“Did he seem sad?” asked her niece.

“He was dark under the eyes,” said Mrs. Penniman. “So different from when I first saw him; though I am not sure that if I had seen him in this condition the first time, I should not have been even more struck with him. There is something brilliant in his very misery.”

This was, to Catherine’s sense, a vivid picture, and though she disapproved, she felt herself gazing at it. “Where did you see him?” she asked presently.

“In — in the Bowery; at a confectioner’s,” said Mrs. Penniman, who had a general idea that she ought to dissemble a little.

“Whereabouts is the place?” Catherine inquired, after another pause.

“Do you wish to go there, my dear?” said her aunt.

“Oh no!” And Catherine got up from her seat and went to the fire, where she stood looking a while at the glowing coals.

“Why are you so dry, Catherine?” Mrs. Penniman said at last.

“So dry?”

“So cold — so irresponsive.”

The girl turned very quickly. “Did HE say that?”

Mrs. Penniman hesitated a moment. “I will tell you what he said. He said he feared only one thing — that you would be afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Afraid of your father.”

Catherine turned back to the fire again, and then, after a pause, she said —“I AM afraid of my father.”

Mrs. Penniman got quickly up from her chair and approached her niece. “Do you mean to give him up, then?”

Catherine for some time never moved; she kept her eyes on the coals. At last she raised her head and looked at her aunt. “Why do you push me so?” she asked.

“I don’t push you. When have I spoken to you before?”

“It seems to me that you have spoken to me several times.”

“I am afraid it is necessary, then, Catherine,” said Mrs. Penniman, with a good deal of solemnity. “I am afraid you don’t feel the importance —” She paused a little; Catherine was looking at her. “The importance of not disappointing that gallant young heart!” And Mrs. Penniman went back to her chair, by the lamp, and, with a little jerk, picked up the evening paper again.

Catherine stood there before the fire, with her hands behind her, looking at her aunt, to whom it seemed that the girl had never had just this dark fixedness in her gaze. “I don’t think you understand — or that you know me,” she said.

“If I don’t, it is not wonderful; you trust me so little.”

Catherine made no attempt to deny this charge, and for some time more nothing was said. But Mrs. Penniman’s imagination was restless, and the evening paper failed on this occasion to enchain it.

“If you succumb to the dread of your father’s wrath,” she said, “I don’t know what will become of us.”

“Did HE tell you to say these things to me?”

“He told me to use my influence.”

“You must be mistaken,” said Catherine. “He trusts me.”

“I hope he may never repent of it!” And Mrs. Penniman gave a little sharp slap to her newspaper. She knew not what to make of her niece, who had suddenly become stern and contradictious.

This tendency on Catherine’s part was presently even more apparent. “You had much better not make any more appointments with Mr. Townsend,” she said. “I don’t think it is right.”

Mrs. Penniman rose with considerable majesty. “My poor child, are you jealous of me?” she inquired.

“Oh, Aunt Lavinia!” murmured Catherine, blushing.

“I don’t think it is your place to teach me what is right.”

On this point Catherine made no concession. “It can’t be right to deceive.”

“I certainly have not deceived YOU!”

“Yes; but I promised my father —”

“I have no doubt you promised your father. But I have promised him nothing!”

Catherine had to admit this, and she did so in silence. “I don’t believe Mr. Townsend himself likes it,” she said at last.

“Doesn’t like meeting me?”

“Not in secret.”

“It was not in secret; the place was full of people.”

“But it was a secret place — away off in the Bowery.”

Mrs. Penniman flinched a little. “Gentlemen enjoy such things,” she remarked presently. “I know what gentlemen like.”

“My father wouldn’t like it, if he knew.”

“Pray, do you propose to inform him?” Mrs. Penniman inquired.

“No, Aunt Lavinia. But please don’t do it again.”

“If I do it again, you will inform him: is that what you mean? I do not share your dread of my brother; I have always known how to defend my own position. But I shall certainly never again take any step on your behalf; you are much too thankless. I knew you were not a spontaneous nature, but I believed you were firm, and I told your father that he would find you so. I am disappointed — but your father will not be!” And with this, Mrs. Penniman offered her niece a brief good-night, and withdrew to her own apartment.

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