Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 20

On the morrow, in the afternoon, she heard his voice at the door, and his step in the hall. She received him in the big, bright front parlour, and she instructed the servant that if any one should call she was particularly engaged. She was not afraid of her father’s coming in, for at that hour he was always driving about town. When Morris stood there before her, the first thing that she was conscious of was that he was even more beautiful to look at than fond recollection had painted him; the next was that he had pressed her in his arms. When she was free again it appeared to her that she had now indeed thrown herself into the gulf of defiance, and even, for an instant, that she had been married to him.

He told her that she had been very cruel, and had made him very unhappy; and Catherine felt acutely the difficulty of her destiny, which forced her to give pain in such opposite quarters. But she wished that, instead of reproaches, however tender, he would give her help; he was certainly wise enough, and clever enough, to invent some issue from their troubles. She expressed this belief, and Morris received the assurance as if he thought it natural; but he interrogated, at first — as was natural too — rather than committed himself to marking out a course.

“You should not have made me wait so long,” he said. “I don’t know how I have been living; every hour seemed like years. You should have decided sooner.”

“Decided?” Catherine asked.

“Decided whether you would keep me or give me up.”

“Oh, Morris,” she cried, with a long tender murmur, “I never thought of giving you up!”

“What, then, were you waiting for?” The young man was ardently logical.

“I thought my father might — might —” and she hesitated.

“Might see how unhappy you were?”

“Oh no! But that he might look at it differently.”

“And now you have sent for me to tell me that at last he does so. Is that it?”

This hypothetical optimism gave the poor girl a pang. “No, Morris,” she said solemnly, “he looks at it still in the same way.”

“Then why have you sent for me?”

“Because I wanted to see you!” cried Catherine piteously.

“That’s an excellent reason, surely. But did you want to look at me only? Have you nothing to tell me?”

His beautiful persuasive eyes were fixed upon her face, and she wondered what answer would be noble enough to make to such a gaze as that. For a moment her own eyes took it in, and then —“I DID want to look at you!” she said gently. But after this speech, most inconsistently, she hid her face.

Morris watched her for a moment, attentively. “Will you marry me to-morrow?” he asked suddenly.

“To-morrow?”

“Next week, then. Any time within a month.”

“Isn’t it better to wait?” said Catherine.

“To wait for what?”

She hardly knew for what; but this tremendous leap alarmed her. “Till we have thought about it a little more.”

He shook his head, sadly and reproachfully. “I thought you had been thinking about it these three weeks. Do you want to turn it over in your mind for five years? You have given me more than time enough. My poor girl,” he added in a moment, “you are not sincere!”

Catherine coloured from brow to chin, and her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, how can you say that?” she murmured.

“Why, you must take me or leave me,” said Morris, very reasonably. “You can’t please your father and me both; you must choose between us.”

“I have chosen you!” she said passionately.

“Then marry me next week.”

She stood gazing at him. “Isn’t there any other way?”

“None that I know of for arriving at the same result. If there is, I should be happy to hear of it.”

Catherine could think of nothing of the kind, and Morris’s luminosity seemed almost pitiless. The only thing she could think of was that her father might, after all, come round, and she articulated, with an awkward sense of her helplessness in doing so, a wish that this miracle might happen.

“Do you think it is in the least degree likely?” Morris asked.

“It would be, if he could only know you!”

“He can know me if he will. What is to prevent it?”

“His ideas, his reasons,” said Catherine. “They are so — so terribly strong.” She trembled with the recollection of them yet.

“Strong?” cried Morris. “I would rather you should think them weak.”

“Oh, nothing about my father is weak!” said the girl.

Morris turned away, walking to the window, where he stood looking out. “You are terribly afraid of him!” he remarked at last.

She felt no impulse to deny it, because she had no shame in it; for if it was no honour to herself, at least it was an honour to him. “I suppose I must be,” she said simply.

“Then you don’t love me — not as I love you. If you fear your father more than you love me, then your love is not what I hoped it was.”

“Ah, my friend!” she said, going to him.

“Do I fear anything?” he demanded, turning round on her. “For your sake what am I not ready to face?”

“You are noble — you are brave!” she answered, stopping short at a distance that was almost respectful.

“Small good it does me, if you are so timid.”

“I don’t think that I am — REALLY,” said Catherine.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘really.’ It is really enough to make us miserable.”

“I should be strong enough to wait — to wait a long time.”

“And suppose after a long time your father should hate me worse than ever?”

“He wouldn’t — he couldn’t!”

“He would be touched by my fidelity? Is that what you mean? If he is so easily touched, then why should you be afraid of him?”

This was much to the point, and Catherine was struck by it. “I will try not to be,” she said. And she stood there submissively, the image, in advance, of a dutiful and responsible wife. This image could not fail to recommend itself to Morris Townsend, and he continued to give proof of the high estimation in which he held her. It could only have been at the prompting of such a sentiment that he presently mentioned to her that the course recommended by Mrs. Penniman was an immediate union, regardless of consequences.

“Yes, Aunt Penniman would like that,” Catherine said simply — and yet with a certain shrewdness. It must, however, have been in pure simplicity, and from motives quite untouched by sarcasm, that, a few moments after, she went on to say to Morris that her father had given her a message for him. It was quite on her conscience to deliver this message, and had the mission been ten times more painful she would have as scrupulously performed it. “He told me to tell you — to tell you very distinctly, and directly from himself, that if I marry without his consent, I shall not inherit a penny of his fortune. He made a great point of this. He seemed to think — he seemed to think — “

Morris flushed, as any young man of spirit might have flushed at an imputation of baseness.

“What did he seem to think?”

“That it would make a difference.”

“It WILL make a difference — in many things. We shall be by many thousands of dollars the poorer; and that is a great difference. But it will make none in my affection.”

“We shall not want the money,” said Catherine; “for you know I have a good deal myself.”

“Yes, my dear girl, I know you have something. And he can’t touch that!”

“He would never,” said Catherine. “My mother left it to me.”

Morris was silent a while. “He was very positive about this, was he?” he asked at last. “He thought such a message would annoy me terribly, and make me throw off the mask, eh?”

“I don’t know what he thought,” said Catherine wearily.

“Please tell him that I care for his message as much as for that!” And Morris snapped his fingers sonorously.

“I don’t think I could tell him that.”

“Do you know you sometimes disappoint me?” said Morris.

“I should think I might. I disappoint every one — father and Aunt Penniman.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter with me, because I am fonder of you than they are.”

“Yes, Morris,” said the girl, with her imagination — what there was of it — swimming in this happy truth, which seemed, after all, invidious to no one.

“Is it your belief that he will stick to it — stick to it for ever, to this idea of disinheriting you? — that your goodness and patience will never wear out his cruelty?”

“The trouble is that if I marry you, he will think I am not good. He will think that a proof.”

“Ah, then, he will never forgive you!”

This idea, sharply expressed by Morris’s handsome lips, renewed for a moment, to the poor girl’s temporarily pacified conscience, all its dreadful vividness. “Oh, you must love me very much!” she cried.

“There is no doubt of that, my dear!” her lover rejoined. “You don’t like that word ‘disinherited,’” he added in a moment.

“It isn’t the money; it is that he should — that he should feel so.”

“I suppose it seems to you a kind of curse,” said Morris. “It must be very dismal. But don’t you think,” he went on presently, “that if you were to try to be very clever, and to set rightly about it, you might in the end conjure it away? Don’t you think,” he continued further, in a tone of sympathetic speculation, “that a really clever woman, in your place, might bring him round at last? Don’t you think?”

Here, suddenly, Morris was interrupted; these ingenious inquiries had not reached Catherine’s ears. The terrible word “disinheritance,” with all its impressive moral reprobation, was still ringing there; seemed indeed to gather force as it lingered. The mortal chill of her situation struck more deeply into her child-like heart, and she was overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness and danger. But her refuge was there, close to her, and she put out her hands to grasp it. “Ah, Morris,” she said, with a shudder, “I will marry you as soon as you please.” And she surrendered herself, leaning her head on his shoulder.

“My dear good girl!” he exclaimed, looking down at his prize. And then he looked up again, rather vaguely, with parted lips and lifted eyebrows.

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