Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 19

It was for reasons connected with this determination that on the morrow he sought a few words of private conversation with Mrs. Penniman. He sent for her to the library, and he there informed her that he hoped very much that, as regarded this affair of Catherine’s, she would mind her p’s and q’s.

“I don’t know what you mean by such an expression,” said his sister. “You speak as if I were learning the alphabet.”

“The alphabet of common sense is something you will never learn,” the Doctor permitted himself to respond.

“Have you called me here to insult me?” Mrs. Penniman inquired.

“Not at all. Simply to advise you. You have taken up young Townsend; that’s your own affair. I have nothing to do with your sentiments, your fancies, your affections, your delusions; but what I request of you is that you will keep these things to yourself. I have explained my views to Catherine; she understands them perfectly, and anything that she does further in the way of encouraging Mr. Townsend’s attentions will be in deliberate opposition to my wishes. Anything that you should do in the way of giving her aid and comfort will be — permit me the expression — distinctly treasonable. You know high treason is a capital offence; take care how you incur the penalty.”

Mrs. Penniman threw back her head, with a certain expansion of the eye which she occasionally practised. “It seems to me that you talk like a great autocrat.”

“I talk like my daughter’s father.”

“Not like your sister’s brother!” cried Lavinia. “My dear Lavinia,” said the Doctor, “I sometimes wonder whether I am your brother. We are so extremely different. In spite of differences, however, we can, at a pinch, understand each other; and that is the essential thing just now. Walk straight with regard to Mr. Townsend; that’s all I ask. It is highly probable you have been corresponding with him for the last three weeks — perhaps even seeing him. I don’t ask you — you needn’t tell me.” He had a moral conviction that she would contrive to tell a fib about the matter, which it would disgust him to listen to. “Whatever you have done, stop doing it. That’s all I wish.”

“Don’t you wish also by chance to murder our child?” Mrs. Penniman inquired.

“On the contrary, I wish to make her live and be happy.”

“You will kill her; she passed a dreadful night.”

“She won’t die of one dreadful night, nor of a dozen. Remember that I am a distinguished physician.”

Mrs. Penniman hesitated a moment. Then she risked her retort. “Your being a distinguished physician has not prevented you from already losing TWO MEMBERS of your family!”

She had risked it, but her brother gave her such a terribly incisive look — a look so like a surgeon’s lancet — that she was frightened at her courage. And he answered her in words that corresponded to the look: “It may not prevent me, either, from losing the society of still another.”

Mrs. Penniman took herself off, with whatever air of depreciated merit was at her command, and repaired to Catherine’s room, where the poor girl was closeted. She knew all about her dreadful night, for the two had met again, the evening before, after Catherine left her father. Mrs. Penniman was on the landing of the second floor when her niece came upstairs. It was not remarkable that a person of so much subtlety should have discovered that Catherine had been shut up with the Doctor. It was still less remarkable that she should have felt an extreme curiosity to learn the result of this interview, and that this sentiment, combined with her great amiability and generosity, should have prompted her to regret the sharp words lately exchanged between her niece and herself. As the unhappy girl came into sight, in the dusky corridor, she made a lively demonstration of sympathy. Catherine’s bursting heart was equally oblivious. She only knew that her aunt was taking her into her arms. Mrs. Penniman drew her into Catherine’s own room, and the two women sat there together, far into the small hours; the younger one with her head on the other’s lap, sobbing and sobbing at first in a soundless, stifled manner, and then at last perfectly still. It gratified Mrs. Penniman to be able to feel conscientiously that this scene virtually removed the interdict which Catherine had placed upon her further communion with Morris Townsend. She was not gratified, however, when, in coming back to her niece’s room before breakfast, she found that Catherine had risen and was preparing herself for this meal.

“You should not go to breakfast,” she said; “you are not well enough, after your fearful night.”

“Yes, I am very well, and I am only afraid of being late.”

“I can’t understand you!” Mrs. Penniman cried. “You should stay in bed for three days.”

“Oh, I could never do that!” said Catherine, to whom this idea presented no attractions.

Mrs. Penniman was in despair, and she noted, with extreme annoyance, that the trace of the night’s tears had completely vanished from Catherine’s eyes. She had a most impracticable physique. “What effect do you expect to have upon your father,” her aunt demanded, “if you come plumping down, without a vestige of any sort of feeling, as if nothing in the world had happened?”

“He would not like me to lie in bed,” said Catherine simply.

“All the more reason for your doing it. How else do you expect to move him?”

Catherine thought a little. “I don’t know how; but not in that way. I wish to be just as usual.” And she finished dressing, and, according to her aunt’s expression, went plumping down into the paternal presence. She was really too modest for consistent pathos.

And yet it was perfectly true that she had had a dreadful night. Even after Mrs. Penniman left her she had had no sleep. She lay staring at the uncomforting gloom, with her eyes and ears filled with the movement with which her father had turned her out of his room, and of the words in which he had told her that she was a heartless daughter. Her heart was breaking. She had heart enough for that. At moments it seemed to her that she believed him, and that to do what she was doing, a girl must indeed be bad. She WAS bad; but she couldn’t help it. She would try to appear good, even if her heart were perverted; and from time to time she had a fancy that she might accomplish something by ingenious concessions to form, though she should persist in caring for Morris. Catherine’s ingenuities were indefinite, and we are not called upon to expose their hollowness. The best of them perhaps showed itself in that freshness of aspect which was so discouraging to Mrs. Penniman, who was amazed at the absence of haggardness in a young woman who for a whole night had lain quivering beneath a father’s curse. Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind. It seemed a proof that she was strong and solid and dense, and would live to a great age — longer than might be generally convenient; and this idea was depressing, for it appeared to saddle her with a pretension the more, just when the cultivation of any pretension was inconsistent with her doing right. She wrote that day to Morris Townsend, requesting him to come and see her on the morrow; using very few words, and explaining nothing. She would explain everything face to face.


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