Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 21

Dr. Sloper very soon imparted his conviction to Mrs. Almond, in the same terms in which he had announced it to himself. “She’s going to stick, by Jove! she’s going to stick.”

“Do you mean that she is going to marry him?” Mrs. Almond inquired.

“I don’t know that; but she is not going to break down. She is going to drag out the engagement, in the hope of making me relent.”

“And shall you not relent?”

“Shall a geometrical proposition relent? I am not so superficial.”

“Doesn’t geometry treat of surfaces?” asked Mrs. Almond, who, as we know, was clever, smiling.

“Yes; but it treats of them profoundly. Catherine and her young man are my surfaces; I have taken their measure.”

“You speak as if it surprised you.”

“It is immense; there will be a great deal to observe.”

“You are shockingly cold-blooded!” said Mrs. Almond.

“I need to be with all this hot blood about me. Young Townsend indeed is cool; I must allow him that merit.”

“I can’t judge him,” Mrs. Almond answered; “but I am not at all surprised at Catherine.”

“I confess I am a little; she must have been so deucedly divided and bothered.”

“Say it amuses you outright! I don’t see why it should be such a joke that your daughter adores you.”

“It is the point where the adoration stops that I find it interesting to fix.”

“It stops where the other sentiment begins.”

“Not at all — that would be simple enough. The two things are extremely mixed up, and the mixture is extremely odd. It will produce some third element, and that’s what I am waiting to see. I wait with suspense — with positive excitement; and that is a sort of emotion that I didn’t suppose Catherine would ever provide for me. I am really very much obliged to her.”

“She will cling,” said Mrs. Almond; “she will certainly cling.”

“Yes; as I say, she will stick.”

“Cling is prettier. That’s what those very simple natures always do, and nothing could be simpler than Catherine. She doesn’t take many impressions; but when she takes one she keeps it. She is like a copper kettle that receives a dent; you may polish up the kettle, but you can’t efface the mark.”

“We must try and polish up Catherine,” said the Doctor. “I will take her to Europe.”

“She won’t forget him in Europe.”

“He will forget her, then.”

Mrs. Almond looked grave. “Should you really like that?”

“Extremely!” said the Doctor.

Mrs. Penniman, meanwhile, lost little time in putting herself again in communication with Morris Townsend. She requested him to favour her with another interview, but she did not on this occasion select an oyster saloon as the scene of their meeting. She proposed that he should join her at the door of a certain church, after service on Sunday afternoon, and she was careful not to appoint the place of worship which she usually visited, and where, as she said, the congregation would have spied upon her. She picked out a less elegant resort, and on issuing from its portal at the hour she had fixed she saw the young man standing apart. She offered him no recognition till she had crossed the street and he had followed her to some distance. Here, with a smile —“Excuse my apparent want of cordiality,” she said. “You know what to believe about that. Prudence before everything.” And on his asking her in what direction they should walk, “Where we shall be least observed,” she murmured.

Morris was not in high good-humour, and his response to this speech was not particularly gallant. “I don’t flatter myself we shall be much observed anywhere.” Then he turned recklessly toward the centre of the town. “I hope you have come to tell me that he has knocked under,” he went on.

“I am afraid I am not altogether a harbinger of good; and yet, too, I am to a certain extent a messenger of peace. I have been thinking a great deal, Mr. Townsend,” said Mrs. Penniman.

“You think too much.”

“I suppose I do; but I can’t help it, my mind is so terribly active. When I give myself, I give myself. I pay the penalty in my headaches, my famous headaches — a perfect circlet of pain! But I carry it as a queen carries her crown. Would you believe that I have one now? I wouldn’t, however, have missed our rendezvous for anything. I have something very important to tell you.”

“Well, let’s have it,” said Morris.

“I was perhaps a little headlong the other day in advising you to marry immediately. I have been thinking it over, and now I see it just a little differently.”

“You seem to have a great many different ways of seeing the same object.”

“Their number is infinite!” said Mrs. Penniman, in a tone which seemed to suggest that this convenient faculty was one of her brightest attributes.

“I recommend you to take one way and stick to it,” Morris replied.

“Ah! but it isn’t easy to choose. My imagination is never quiet, never satisfied. It makes me a bad adviser, perhaps; but it makes me a capital friend!”

“A capital friend who gives bad advice!” said Morris.

“Not intentionally — and who hurries off, at every risk, to make the most humble excuses!”

“Well, what do you advise me now?”

“To be very patient; to watch and wait.”

“And is that bad advice or good?”

“That is not for me to say,” Mrs. Penniman rejoined, with some dignity. “I only pretend it’s sincere.”

“And will you come to me next week and recommend something different and equally sincere?”

“I may come to you next week and tell you that I am in the streets!”

“In the streets?”

“I have had a terrible scene with my brother, and he threatens, if anything happens, to turn me out of the house. You know I am a poor woman.”

Morris had a speculative idea that she had a little property; but he naturally did not press this.

“I should be very sorry to see you suffer martyrdom for me,” he said. “But you make your brother out a regular Turk.”

Mrs. Penniman hesitated a little.

“I certainly do not regard Austin as a satisfactory Christian.”

“And am I to wait till he is converted?”

“Wait, at any rate, till he is less violent. Bide your time, Mr. Townsend; remember the prize is great!”

Morris walked along some time in silence, tapping the railings and gateposts very sharply with his stick.

“You certainly are devilish inconsistent!” he broke out at last. “I have already got Catherine to consent to a private marriage.”

Mrs. Penniman was indeed inconsistent, for at this news she gave a little jump of gratification.

“Oh! when and where?” she cried. And then she stopped short.

Morris was a little vague about this.

“That isn’t fixed; but she consents. It’s deuced awkward, now, to back out.”

Mrs. Penniman, as I say, had stopped short; and she stood there with her eyes fixed brilliantly on her companion.

“Mr. Townsend,” she proceeded, “shall I tell you something? Catherine loves you so much that you may do anything.”

This declaration was slightly ambiguous, and Morris opened his eyes.

“I am happy to hear it! But what do you mean by ‘anything’?”

“You may postpone — you may change about; she won’t think the worse of you.”

Morris stood there still, with his raised eyebrows; then he said simply and rather dryly —“Ah!” After this he remarked to Mrs. Penniman that if she walked so slowly she would attract notice, and he succeeded, after a fashion, in hurrying her back to the domicile of which her tenure had become so insecure.

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